Howard County's efforts to raise the achievement level of under-performing groups of students appear to be helping, as pass rates on four state High School Assessment tests climbed this year.

Overall, Howard students had higher pass rates on tests in four subject areas than they did in 2002 or 2003. High school students performed best on the government test, with 83.6 percent of students passing, a four-point increase from 2003. The pass rate for biology was 80.1 percent, an increase of 6.2 points over last year. The pass rate for English was 74.4 percent, an increase of 12.3 points over 2003.

Educators pointed to increases by student subgroups, such as 16-point gains on the English test by both African American and low-income students. The African American pass rate on the English test this year was 52.9 percent, and for low-income students it was 40.1 percent.

"There is still work to be done with several of the subgroup populations, but it should be obvious to everyone that our efforts are paying off and we're headed in the right direction," Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said.

Passing the tests will become a state requirement for graduation for the Class of 2009, or today's eighth-graders. Until then, high school and some middle school students must still take the tests, with county educators subsequently analyzing their performance.

This year, high school students taking the algebra/data analysis test had a pass rate of 56.5 percent, which is up 3.1 points from 2003. Advanced mathematics students in seventh and eighth grades also took the algebra test this year, with a pass rate of 97.5 percent. When the middle and high school groups' scores are combined, the county's overall algebra pass rate is 74.1 percent.

Despite the gains this year, county educators acknowledged that reaching a 95 percent pass rate on all tests for all students will be difficult. For example, the pass rate for special education students in government this year was 41 percent, and the pass rate in biology for students learning English as a second language was 37.1 percent.

"It's going to be a challenge to get all our [student] subgroups to 95 percent," said Leslie Wilson, director of student assessment and program evaluation.

Only gifted and talented students in middle and high school surpassed the county's goal of a 95 percent pass rate on the four tests. Wilson said increasing curriculum standards in elementary grades is one way to help students gradually master their subjects as they approach high school.

"This will make it a little bit easier for high school students to accomplish," she said.

Staff writer Mary Otto contributed to this report.