It was 1975, and teachers, parents and school administrators in public schools across the country were beginning to discover that students were graduating from high school without the ability to balance their check-books, follow a map or even read street signs.

It was a time when the basic issue in education was competence: when parents began to demand that schools return to drilling students in the basics. It was also a time when Montgomery with that issue in mind hired Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo to run the county schools.

Bernardo promised to institute a new system of teaching math, language, arts, science and social studies designed to assure that every student who finished the eighth grade would have demonstrated ability in specific academic skills. Computer testing would be the system's basic tool and standardized, comprehensive records would document each student's achievements.

Now, three years later, the first "instructional system" to be implemented in the schools - in mathematics - is coming up for evaluation by the board, and is the focus of an acrimonious dispute between the system's partisans - including many administrators, as well as some teachers - and the teachers and parents who oppose it.

Bernardo and a corps of planners and educators throughout the school system believe the new teaching programs are the most logical, fair and efficient way to direct public education.

And Bernardo's opponents - including a slate of three candidates in the hotly contested school board election, portray the programs as representing everything they dislike about the embattled superintendent: elaborate bureaucratic management ideas, high-flown educational jargon, and administrative insensitivity.

The mathematics system, now in place in 56 schools, is designed to test requentially every student's mastery of each math concept or skill, from counting to problem-solving, often by computer.

There are 23 different categories of study and 170 teaching objectives, and test results for each student on each objective are fed into a central data bank, they poured back out in detailed reports that profile the specific progress - or lack of it - of every student in every class.

This term, the massive testing is being done strictly on computer terminals in 35 schools, at a cost of $158,000 over the year - which administrators say is the only added cost of the new program over traditional teaching methods. Eight more schools will have terminals in February, and by next year, every elementary and junior high school in the county is expected to be using the math system in some form.

For school administrators, the central accounting of all scores on all assessments in all grades is what makes the system work. The paper work ensures, they say, that the basics are taught.

Under the system, each student has a cumulative, computerized record of tests throughout his school career, and teachers receive hundreds of pages of printouts, including class profiles showing how far each student has progressed.

The records mean that every elementary student in the county can be matched against a countywide norm - rather that one determined in the class. Transfers between schools are immensely simplified. And no student, theoretically, will enter high school without finishing all 170 of his math objectives.

But more importantly, administrators say, the detailed statistics allow teachers to specialize more within math classes.

"Most elementary school teachers are generalists," says Tom Rowan, the director of the district's math curriculum. They have three groups in a class, and that's it. Under this system the teaching can be tailored to each student's needs."

For many teachers, however, what becomes rigid under the system is teaching, not learning. "The systems approach will help poor teachers come up to a standard," says Maveo Hess, who has taught math for more than 20 years in Montgomery elementary schools. "But it is going to make more teachers alike. It is going to stifle the really creative teachers that have given this school district the reputation it has."

Every carefully designed teaching and evaluation technique of the system, disgruntled teachers say, creates exactly the opposite effect it is meant for.

Instead of assisting them, teachers say, the stacks of reports and forms overwhelm them with mostly useless information and paper work, preventing them from preparing adequately to teach classes.

"The idea is to individualize, but when you have 30 kids in a class you just can't have every child doing a different thing at the same time," said Rita Winterbourne, who teaches fifth grade at Twinbrook Elementary.

"The point is you don't need expensive machines to test children and find out which are doing poorly. Any teacher can pick out those students with a pencil-and-paper test in class."

"The real problem," says Hess, "is trying to help the students who obviously have problems. And this system does nothing about that - it just tells teachers what they already know."

Moreover, teachers say that the elaborate process of assessment - under which each student must be dismissed from class from one to three or more times a week to take tests in the computer room - often transforms a disciplined class routine into chaos.

"You send a kid down and try to go on with the class," says Vic Exner, who teaches three fifth-grade math classes at Coldspring Elementary, "and ten minutes later he's back tugging at your sleeve, telling you he couldn't get the system to work. Then you have to stop and deal with him. You end up pulling kids out of the other classes to take these tests - and that gets them behind in other subjects."

Teachers also complain of the many breakdowns in the system - both mechanical and bureaucratic. This fall, administrators concede, the computer system has been inoperative on numerous days - preventing students from completing their assessments and throwing teachers and classes into confusion.

And there are countless stories of mix-ups. Exner of Coldspring says, for example, that a number of his fifth graders were demonted to third-grade math by the computer last year because of casual errors they made the October placement test. It was January, he said, before he received permission from the district central office to move the students back to fifth-grade topics. By then they had already been forced to repeat all of the third and fourth-grade material, he said.

All of the bickering between teachers and administrators seems to reduce, finally, to a basic conflict over teacher independence and competence. Administrators believe that the centrally controlled tests and accounting are necessary to ensure that students learn the basics. Teachers say that those tasks belong to them, and resent the intrusion on their time and their own, personal styles of evaluation.

"All of this really hurs our pride," Hess said. "What really makes us mad is that when we criticize Bernardo's program, we're told we don't care about kids.