Four Howard County schools fell short of state standards on key reading and math tests this year, according to data released this week.

Three of the schools missed targets because of the performance of special education students. They were Phelps Luck Elementary School on the math exam, Patuxent Valley Middle School on the reading exam, and Cradlerock School on reading and math. Wilde Lake Middle School came up short on the reading test among students who speak limited English.

"We know we need to do more with bringing up the test scores of special education students in particular. One or two students can make the difference," Howard Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said. But, he said, "for the great majority of the schools in the county, this is very, very good news."

The exams, known as the Maryland School Assessments, were given to all public school students in grades three to eight and in grade 10 this spring. Results for Howard's 57 elementary and middle schools were released Monday. Final scores for high schools are not expected until later this summer.

Howard County once again fared better than most school systems. In Montgomery County, for example, 117 of the 125 elementary schools and 19 of the 36 middle schools met the standards.

School scores are ranked as basic, proficient and advanced. Students must be at least proficient to pass the exam. Schools are then judged by students' performance on the tests overall, and results are broken down by subgroups based on race, income, fluency in English and whether students have disabilities.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students in each of those groups score proficient on the exams by 2014. Maryland has set increasingly higher annual targets for schools as they work toward that goal. Schools that fail to meet those targets could be forced to allow their students to transfer to better-performing schools or provide private tutoring, and they eventually could face state takeover.

Terry Alban, the Howard school system's testing director, called this year's results "tentative." She said the district plans to appeal the results at Wilde Lake Middle because some students who did poorly on the reading exam are recent immigrants and should not have taken it. School officials said coding errors led to Homewood Center being designated as "in need of improvement." And Phelps Luck, Patuxent Valley and Cradlerock also might qualify for appeal under a new state waiver that allows schools to recalculate the scores of some special education students.

Take Patuxent Valley, for example. Last year was the first time that fifth- and sixth-graders across the state took the three-year-old test, and their scores did not count. So at Patuxent Valley, which had a favorable rating, results from only 19 special education students were factored. This year, however, the scores of fifth- and sixth-graders counted. And Patuxent Valley suddenly had 81 students with disabilities whose scores counted. Twenty-eight passed the reading exam -- six fewer than the school needed.

State officials have said that they will reexamine the scores of special education students who might have qualified to take the modified state reading test that is under development. That could change the rating at Patuxent Valley as well as at Phelps Luck and Cradlerock.

"I think that's a very reasonable change to the law," Alban said.

This month, Howard officials celebrated significant gains across the county on the reading and math tests. More than 80 percent of all students passed the state reading test in each grade from third to eighth. In math, 87 percent of third-graders and 72 percent of eighth-graders passed.

Although scores of black and Hispanic students improved -- as did those of students who are poor, speak limited English or have disabilities -- they still lagged behind county averages. That has been the sticking point for schools as they try to comply with the federal mandate for students of all backgrounds.

Patuxent Valley Principal Sterlind S. Burke said he is not discouraged by his school's rating. The school gives some special education students an extra 90 minutes of reading instruction every other day and has focused on improving reading instruction.

"For me, the fact that we didn't make it isn't due to a lack of focus. It's not due to a lack of effort of the staff. It is just a reality," Burke said. "We know we have great kids. We just have to get the best we can out of them."