The percentage of Howard County high school students who passed key state tests dropped in two out of three subjects for the first time since the tests were introduced in 2002, according to data released this week.

The exams, known as the High School Assessments, are given in algebra, government, biology and English. Results from the English exam will not be available until late fall because students took a new version of the test this year. By 2009, students will be required to pass the tests to receive a high school diploma.

In algebra, the percentage of students who passed the exam rose slightly, from 74 percent to 74.3 percent. But in government, the pass rate dipped from 83 percent to nearly 82 percent.

The biggest drop was in biology, where the pass rate fell by nearly 3 percentage points, from almost 80 percent to about 77 percent.

The decline in scores in Howard reflected a statewide pattern. Still, results for Howard were higher than state averages. A complete listing of all HSA results can be found at www.mdreportcard.org.

Terry Alban, the county's director of student assessment, said the county will probably see improvement after students begin taking the tests more seriously. She also said the county faces challenges in boosting the scores of minority students. "I don't think we have an easy road ahead," she said.

The pass rates for black and Hispanic students in Howard continued to lag behind those of their white counterparts, sometimes by 20 or 30 percentage points. Only half of Hispanic students passed the biology exam, for example, down 18.5 points from last year. Eighty-five percent of white students passed it.

Special education students and those who speak limited English also performed poorly on the exams. No more than 40 percent of disabled students passed any of the three exams.

The highest pass rate for limited English speakers was 44 percent on the algebra test.

Howard School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said the school district has been targeting struggling groups of students in hopes of boosting their test scores.

"We need to continue to be aggressive about our instructional program," he said. "I think we're on the right path."

Also this week, school officials released the results of a statewide geometry test that is used to rate schools' performance under the No Child Left Behind Act. Out of the 11 high schools that administered the exam, only Hammond High did not meet the state's standards, school officials said.

Hammond fell short in one area, the performance of special education students. The district is considering appealing that decision, Cousin said. Howard has won its appeals about the results of state reading and math tests at several elementary and middle schools. Those were: Wilde Lake Middle School, Phelps Luck Elementary School, Cradlerock School, Patuxent Valley Middle School and Homewood School.