If passing the Maryland High School Assessment tests were linked to graduation - as the state has proposed for the class of 2009 - nearly a third of Howard County teens would not make the cut, according to school system data released this month.
"It's going to be a real concern if they do it that way," said Leslie Wilson, the county's director of student assessment. "But that's an 'if.' "
Completing the four exams - in biology, algebra, government and English - is mandatory for graduation, but passing is not.
The Maryland State Board of Education is expected to vote in the spring on a proposal requiring passing scores for a diploma. And the state board is still considering options for students, such as retaking failed tests or combining scores to get a passing average.
But while the state makes up its mind, school districts still have to prepare children for the decision, which makes the recent Howard report disturbing.
About 62 percent of students passed the English exam; 78 percent passed the government test; 73 percent passed the biology test; and about 70 percent passed the algebra exam.
Nearly half of African-American students failed at least one of the four tests. Six of 10 non-native English speakers fell short, and 65 percent of students receiving reduced-price meals did not pass an exam.
The county seeks to have 95 percent of test takers pass, a goal only students in the gifted-and-talented program met.
At the school level, Glenelg came closest to the county goal in biology and government, with 89 percent of test takers passing each. Atholton had the highest English pass rate, at 77 percent, and River Hill had the highest percentage of students passing the algebra test, with 78 percent.
On the low end were Hammond, with 34 percent of students passing the algebra exam; Howard High, where 61 percent passed the biology test; Long Reach, with 42 percent passing the English exam; and Oakland Mills, with 67 percent passing the government test.
Still, Howard percentages are an improvement over 2002 - the first year the tests were given - in all areas but English. The county also exceeded the Maryland pass rates. Statewide, about 47 percent of test takers passed the algebra and biology tests; 40 percent passed the English test; and 60 percent passed the government exam.
There were bright spots. Oakland Mills and Long Reach, both part of the county's intensive improvement unit, showed African-American teen-agers making considerable strides.
"There are a lot of little things in this that I think were very encouraging," said school system spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "But still, we have a long way to go to meet the standards that we've set for ourselves."
Wilson pointed out that the figures are not always reliable.
"Some students aren't taking the tests seriously" because they know the exams don't count, she said. Although passing is not now required for graduation, the test scores still appear on student transcripts.
"They don't understand that," said school board member Sandra H. French. And teen-agers won't, she added, until colleges deny them entrance. "That's when they'll get it," she said.
For now, the scores are providing "some good information about our curriculum and instruction," said Wilson, who has given individual schools reports that highlight inconsistencies between courses and test performance to help them improve.
"I don't think these tests are that unreasonable," she added. "If you take a course in algebra in Howard County, then you should be able to pass the test."
In the 1980s, when the Maryland Functional Tests were introduced, Wilson said, the community balked, saying the measures would never be met. But eventually they were surpassed.
"Everybody steps up to the plate," she said. "You raise the standards and the students are successful. We've done it before."