Howard County students made overall gains on the Maryland School Assessments in reading and math this year, besting state averages but still falling short of an ambitious local goal, according to data released Tuesday.

Across the county, more than 80 percent of students passed the state reading test in each grade from third to eighth. In math, the passing rate ranged from 87 percent in third grade to 72 percent in eighth. Each grade showed improvement over last year, with jumps of as much as 10 percentage points. Scores for minority students and those who are poor, speak limited English or have disabilities also improved but still lagged behind overall scores.

"We have much to be proud of today," School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin told reporters Tuesday.

Though a handful of schools saw their overall scores dip slightly, most schools posted gains this year. One of the most notable increases was at Elkridge Landing Middle School, where the percentage of eighth-graders who passed the math test rose by 27 points.

Still, the county barely missed fulfilling a bold goal laid out by former superintendent John O'Rourke in 2002. He vowed that by this year, 70 percent of students at all middle and elementary schools would pass the state's reading and math tests.

Two elementary schools, Phelps Luck and Running Brook, missed that target by a hair, with passing rates on the math exam of 67 percent and 69 percent, respectively. Five middle schools -- Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills, Patuxent Valley, Wilde Lake and Murray Hill -- also did not meet the county's goal on the math exam. Each of those schools, along with Cradlerock School for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, had a passing rate in the 60th percentile.

Sandra Erickson, Howard's chief academic and administrative officer, said the overall gains across the county and at each school were encouraging.

"These test scores give us one sliver of validation," she said.

Students in grades 3 through 8 took the tests this spring. Tenth-graders also took the exams, but their scores will not be released until later this summer, school officials said.

The exams debuted in 2003 in response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires school systems to test children annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Schools are then judged by students' performance overall and broken down into subgroups based on race and income and whether they speak limited English or have disabilities.

The law mandates that students in all subgroups pass the reading and math tests by 2014. Maryland has set increasing annual targets toward that goal. Schools that do not meet those targets for two consecutive years are considered "in need of improvement" and could be forced to pay for students to receive outside tutoring or even allow them to transfer to another school. Schools that continue to perform poorly could face state takeover.

State officials have not yet determined which schools missed this year's targets, a complex calculation that relies on more than the raw test scores released this week. Those results are expected this month.

Howard school officials said they are reluctant to make any guesses as to how schools will perform by that measure. The district has also set a goal of having 70 percent of students in each subgroup pass the state exams by 2007.

But a persistent achievement gap exists between the passing rates of white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts. Poor students, as well as those who speak limited English or have disabilities, also lag behind.

For example, about 20 percent of white students did not pass the eighth-grade math test. Fifty-five percent of black students and 53 percent of Hispanic students failed it.

But Natalie Woodson, education chairman of the county branch of the NAACP, said she is encouraged by the gains among minority students over the past two years. In 2003, 69 percent of black students and 59 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders did not pass the math test.

"Hearing the news today is so heartening," she said. "We know we're on our way to achieving our goal."