After years of slow gains, Maryland schools saw a slight dip in performance for the first time on the state's unique test of student skills, raising concerns about the pace of progress in one of the nation's most ambitious school reform efforts.

The trend was most pronounced in the Washington area suburbs. Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, St. Mary's, Calvert and Frederick counties all posted lower pass rates. And the vaunted Howard and Montgomery systems slipped in statewide rankings as a result.

While playing down the one-year dip as statistically insignificant, some Washington area school officials acknowledged deep concerns that scores have stagnated in recent years, despite strenuous efforts to boost them.

According to results released yesterday, 43.8 percent of the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders passed this year's Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, down from last year's pass rate of 44.1 percent.

The six-year-old test, which measures students' ability to perform tasks and solve problems, has been the state's main tool for prodding schools to do a better job of preparing children for workplace success.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said the flattening scores point to the need for individual schools and districts to work harder and smarter in making sure children have mastered basic skills.

"A lot of systems had the attitude that this [test] would go away," she said. "We're beginning to see them take it seriously."

Howard County, which long boasted the highest pass rate in the state, lost its bragging rights this year as its declining scores were surpassed by those of tiny, rural Kent County--the only school system to show a sizable improvement. Howard Superintendent Michael E. Hickey found little solace in the fact that scores sagged throughout the D.C. suburbs.

"It makes it all the harder to figure out why," he said. "Did we all do the wrong things at the wrong time?"

Montgomery County's statewide ranking dropped from fourth to fifth, while Anne Arundel County dropped from 11th to 14th. Prince George's County's pass rate dropped from 32.1 to 31.1 percent, leaving it the second-lowest ranked system in the state, the lowest being Baltimore.

State officials offered no simple explanations for the declines. The start of last spring's third- and eighth-grade exams was delayed one day because of unsubstantiated rumors of violence that threatened to empty the schools on test day. But officials said they found no indication that the delay had skewed the results.

For the most part, they said, the results simply indicate the long, hard road that remains for Maryland's school reform effort.

Grasmick urged school officials to "look behind the averages" to see the individual success stories that she said prove major reform is possible. Seventy-seven schools have reached the state's goal of a 70 percent pass rate, and many more are nearing that threshold.

Grasmick pointed to one school in a poor, inner-city Baltimore neighborhood that earned some of the highest math scores in the state--93 percent of the school's fifth-graders passed that portion of the test. Schools like this "and hundreds of others show me that a 70 percent [pass rate] is attainable," she said.

But she admitted that the major classroom overhaul demanded by the MSPAP may be beyond the reach of many schools that lack resources or staff motivation.

"That's where central offices have to provide guidance," Grasmick said, referring to local school boards and superintendents. "They are going to have to get in and work with these schools. It's not going to happen incidentally."

Over the years, MSPAP's unusual approach has drawn both praise and controversy. Unlike most standardized tests, it offers no multiple-choice questions. Instead, it poses open-ended questions, many with no right or wrong answers, and requires students to write essays, draw maps and charts, and perform simple experiments, sometimes in groups.

Many systems and schools have responded to the MSPAP mandate, retooling course work to put more emphasis on reading and writing skills or to give students more hands-on experience.

And with good reason: Because the MSPAP measures schools' (not individual students') performance, the state monitors the results to determine which schools should be rewarded with cash bonuses and which should be targeted for state takeover. More than 100 schools, including 12 in Prince George's, are being monitored for possible takeover.

Matthew Joseph, policy analyst for Advocates for Children and Youth, said it was natural for scores to rise the first few years, as publicity on low scores prodded embarrassed schools to try harder. But now, "I think we've maxed out on the impact we're going to get," he said. His group argues that the state should now take a greater role in helping individual schools improve classroom instruction.

Others questioned how much more improvement was possible. "I think you'll have some people try to question the validity of the test," said James R. Hook, superintendent of Calvert County schools. "When you have whole school systems that have sort of plateaued . . . and are working as hard as we are and not getting where they need to be, someone needs to look at why."

Other school officials were openly disappointed with this year's scores, and they promised to find ways to improve.

Iris T. Metts, the newly hired superintendent in Prince George's County, said she will try to boost the system's pass rate next year, even with limited new funding and resources, by focusing on students' reading, writing and math skills.

"I can't promise we'll be at the state average next year," said Metts, whose annual bonuses are tied to the progress of test scores. "But we will see some increases."

Montgomery's new superintendent, Jerry D. Weast, said his system's decline points to discrepancies between schools in poor and affluent neighborhoods. "The impact of poverty is widely recognized as the most impacting factor in education," he said. "We need to redouble and renew our efforts."

In Anne Arundel, Superintendent Carol S. Parham announced that she would launch an in-depth study of the county's scores and a series of conferences to find classroom strategies to turn scores around.

Individual schools' MSPAP scores are available in today's Anne Arundel Weekly, Montgomery Weekly, Howard Weekly and Southern Maryland Extra sections of The Post. Prince George's school results will be published in Wednesday's Prince George's Extra.

The scores also are available through a link on to the Maryland Department of Education's Web site.

CAPTION: MSPAP Results (This chart was not available)

CAPTION: MSPAP Results (This chart was not available)