More students in Montgomery County passed the Maryland High School Assessment tests this year than in the previous two years of testing, with the biggest jumps in achievement among minority students and those for whom English is not their first language.

But five years before passing the exams becomes mandatory for high school graduation, a significant percent of students failed at least one of the four subject tests.

"Teachers are holding students accountable for these standards," said Terry Alban, the director of the school system's Department of Shared Accountability. "We're looking toward making sure kids are going to be successful when these scores do actually count. This year's result, to me, says people are aware, they're pushing kids. The curriculum's coming into place. Expectations are rising, and kids are doing what they can to meet the challenges."

The percentage of Montgomery County students passing the test was significantly higher in all four subject areas than the statewide passing rates, which also increased this year.

Overall, the passing rates of Montgomery County students were up between 1.8 percent, for the government test, and 9.4 percent, for the English test, over the 2003 results. The percentage of students passing each test was the lowest in English, with 65.7 percent of students passing, and the highest in government, with nearly 80 percent of students passing. More than 72 percent of students passed the algebra and biology exams.

Across the state, 58.8 percent of the students passed the algebra exam and 53 percent met the benchmark in English. More than 60 percent of students statewide passed the biology and government exams.

Beginning with the class of 2009, high school seniors will be required to pass the four exams to graduate. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that 90 percent of high school seniors graduate each year by 2014, and administrators said this year's scores show they are on track to meet that goal.

Of particular concern to county officials, though, is the persistent racial achievement gap, which has narrowed according to this year's test results but still shows substantial differences between higher-scoring white and Asian students and lower-scoring black and Hispanic ones. While black and Hispanic students made double-digit gains this year on the English and algebra tests, those increases brought the percentage of minority students passing the tests to only around half the percentage of white and Asian students who passed.

School officials highlighted in particular the improvements among special-needs students. More than double the percentage of students with lower English language proficiency passed the English assessment test this year than in 2002 or 2003, bringing the passing rate among those students to 20 percent. Low income and special education students saw similar gains on the English test, but still less than half those students taking the test were able to pass it.

"These groups are going to be highly impacted when this becomes a graduation requirement," Alban said.

In the past, administrators have attributed lower passing rates in part to the low stakes of the test. This year, however, students learned their scores on the assessment test would appear on their high school transcript, a motivation that might have boosted performance in the district, said Carol Blum, Montgomery's director of high school instruction. Blum also said this year's passing-rate increases were the result of curriculum changes during the last school year that helped coordinate lesson plans and calibrate grading.

"We've had the curriculum aligned with the state's core learning goals for many years," Blum said, "but it all kind of came together this year."

Brian J. Porter, chief of staff for Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, agreed, saying this year's test results are "a reflection of the school system's efforts to move the whole student body forward together at the same time."

For a detailed, school-by-school list of scores, go to www.mdreportcard.org.