Elementary students in D.C. public schools continued to make progress in reading and math this year, while the achievement level of secondary school students dropped after a two-year rise, according to test results released yesterday.

The good news-bad news portrait of the 62,000-student school system marked the final year of scores from the Stanford 9 standardized test. The test will be replaced next year with a new exam based on standards and curricula the system is adopting this fall.

The results showed that 50.1 percent of elementary students and 30 percent of secondary students scored at the proficient level in reading and that 57.9 percent of elementary children and 32.6 percent of secondary students were rated proficient in math.

But D.C. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey noted that the school system defined "proficient" as a score at or above the 40th percentile. A student at the 40th percentile has scored higher than about 40 percent of students nationwide.

"There's nothing to have a party about," Janey said at a news conference. "Our definition of our mark of proficiency is admittedly low. . . . As we move forward with our new assessment, we will take into consideration what it means to be at grade level. . . . We're going to make sure we put forward new, rigorous standards."

As with other school systems, the District's performance on standardized tests is used to determine how many of its schools are making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The number of D.C. schools meeting their one-year academic benchmark increased this year from 63 to 72, according to the results.

Yet the number of schools failing to meet benchmarks for two years in a row increased from 68 to 81. Under federal law, those schools -- which are classified as "in need of improvement" -- must offer their students free tutorial services and the option of transferring elsewhere in the system.

And although the results indicated that students with limited English were closing the achievement gap with other students, the gap between white and black students remained wide.

School officials said the mixed outcome reflects the challenges of bringing a perennially low-performing system into compliance with the No Child Left Behind law. The law requires that each of nine subgroups at a school -- including special education, minority, low-income and limited English-speaking students -- meet academic targets for the entire school to pass.

At least 37,000 students attend the 81 schools in need of improvement and thus are eligible to transfer, school officials estimated. But only about 4,000 open seats are available at higher-performing schools in the system, said Chief Accountability Officer Meria J. Carstarphen.

"You can't transfer all the students from the low-performing schools," school board member William Lockridge (District 4) said in an interview. "We have to make an impact on a school-by-school basis."

Because all but four of the system's 16 senior high schools are listed as in need of improvement, students in those grades are not being offered a transfer option. School system officials, however, said they are considering allowing a small number of those students to transfer to one of the selective senior high schools, such as Banneker, if they meet admission criteria.

Last year, only 106 students systemwide took advantage of the option. Parents and educators said many families did not have time to make arrangements to switch schools or were not convinced that the move would help their children.

Some education advocacy groups complained that, like last summer, school officials are giving parents little time to make the transfer decision. Letters to parents were mailed early this week, and the deadline for returning transfer applications is Aug. 18. School starts Aug. 29.

The letter lists several dates on which parents can drop off their application in person to get additional information. But several of those dates already had passed by the time the letters were mailed.

"No one would expect a middle-income or a high-income parent to decide in 18 days where their child is going to school. Why would you expect low-income parents to make decisions other parents wouldn't?" asked Natanya L. Levioff, assistant project director for Parent Power Works, a federally funded program that tells low-income parents their rights under No Child Left Behind.

School officials also said they have lined up about 33 groups to provide tutorial and other supplemental services at the low-performing schools, adding that this probably would not be enough for all the students who need the assistance.

Carstarphen described yesterday how officials will intervene at the 42 schools that have failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least three years.

The school system will send in teams of principals from higher-performing schools to assess strengths and weaknesses and to recommend changes, she said.

"We want to revitalize the schools and do the heavy lifting around academics," she said.

Superintendent Clifford B. Janey listens to accountability officer Meria J. Carstarphen. "There's nothing to have a party about," Superintendent Clifford B. Janey says after releasing student test results.