Hundreds of high school students and supporters participated in 2014 March to Close the Gap in Montgomery County schools. They are pictured leaving the school system central offices. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Less than half of the Montgomery County students who took Maryland’s rigorous new standardized tests in algebra and high school English earned scores intended to show they are on track for college or careers upon graduation, according to data released Thursday. In Prince George’s County, less than a third of public school students met that same benchmark on tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

In both school systems — the state’s two largest — the numbers showed that there is a lot of room for improvement on the new assessments, known as PARCC tests, which aim to measure whether students are prepared to succeed after high school.

The results underscore wide gaps in achievement by race, ethnicity and special-education status, a persistent problem at schools across the country.

“We had anticipated that the scores wouldn’t be a pretty picture,” said Montgomery County Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill. The results show a need to do more work on literacy and math and on closing achievement gaps, she said.

The results were from three exams administered for the first time last spring in Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and English 10. Overall, the new results for English were better than those for math.

In Montgomery, 44 percent of students taking the English 10 exam earned scores of 4 or 5, which are considered a marker of college readiness on a five-point grading scale. For Algebra 1, that proficiency level was nearly 39 percent, and for Algebra 2 it was about 31 percent.

In Prince George’s County, 29 percent reached the benchmark in English 10, with 15 percent doing so in Algebra 1 and 8 percent in Algebra 2.

Prince George’s came in lower than Maryland averages for overall performance, while Montgomery exceeded state averages. Across Maryland, nearly 40 percent of students reached the college readiness marker for English 10, while 31 percent did for Algebra 1, and 20 percent for Algebra 2.

“I think this tells the district that we have work to do to make sure all of our students are meeting the rigorous standards that Maryland has set for us,” said Shawn Joseph, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning in Prince George’s County Public Schools.

Joseph noted that there was better news for the county when officials looked at breakdowns by race and ethnicity. While gaps remained stark, two groups exceeded averages for their peers statewide: White students beat state averages on all three exams and black students beat state averages on two exams.

“We definitely expect our scores to improve over time,” Joseph said.

Educators noted that the tests require students to show critical thinking, problem solving and persuasive writing skills, going well beyond tests based on memorization of information.

O’Neill, of Montgomery County, also said it was a baseline year for school systems and the state, with a new test and lingering questions about how many students approached the exam seriously, given that it did not count toward graduation or other requirements.

Montgomery’s chief academic officer, Maria V. Navarro, noted that students taking the algebra exams have had less exposure than younger students to Common Core-based math.

Prince George’s officials said a preliminary analysis showed that the district’s Algebra 1 and English 10 students performed better than their peers in three of the state’s 24 school systems, and that Algebra 2 students did better than those in eight school systems.

Joseph said the data is a starting point and that the system will be following its strategic plan as it moves forward.

“We feel like we have the right plan that we just started executing,” he said.