All high school students in Montgomery County took two-hour final examinations last week that were mandated for the first time by the Board of Education, and a surprising number scored poorly.

At Gaithersburg High School, more than half the senior class did not pass the English exam; in a biology class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, 17 of 34 students failed, and at Walt Whitman High School, U.S. history students scored an average of only 50 percent on the multiple-choice part of the exam.

The school board ruled last year that teachers in each high school were to meet during the fall and write two-hour final exams in their subject areas.The tests were called departmental exams because everyone teaching a particular course in that high school would administer an identical exam.

The board hopes the move will ensure that teachers cover the same material in class. But teachers have opposed the exams, saying they will stifle individualized teaching methods and result in multiple-choice exams that do not test a student's analytical ability.

English, social studies, science, mathematics and foreign-language teachers throughout the county are discussing the exams, arguing about grading scales and trying to decide whether the results indicated faulty teaching methods, poor student study skills or unfair tests.

Teachers applied a more liberal grading scale to these exams than they do to regular tests. This is standard practice in wide-ranging exams such as these two-hour finals. Teachers said they believed the special grading scales were necessary, particularly since the tests were being given for the first time and may have contained ambiguous questions. Also, many of the examinations were written to challenge the top students.

"If we have an exam where the average kids did very well, the AP (advanced-placement) kids would go right off the top of it," said Nancy Traubitz, head of Springbook High School's English department.

James Kennedy, head of Sherwood High School's English department, said that usually, tests have easy questions to encourage some students and difficult ones to challenge others. These exams contained no easy questions.

"The level of difficulty was generally great. I recommend that teachers on other grade levels attempt to take the 11th-grade exam and grade themselves, to appreciate the level of difficulty of the tests," Kennedy wrote last week in a report on the test results.

The final-exam grades count 25 percent of the grade of the last marking period in the semester. Most schools have two nine-week marking periods, while some have three periods of six weeks each.

"Our kids did very poorly, more so than I expected," said Bill Zeiner, head of the English department at Gaithersburg High. Of the entire senior class taking the 100-question multiple-choice English exam, the highest mark was 91. More than half the students failed.

"We felt that we put together an exam which tested the county curriculum. But should we have built an exam that was more appropriate to the instructional level of our kids?" he asked.

Zeiner worries about how the results of department exams will be interpreted. "Will kids here be compared to kids at Whitman?" he asked. "Over 70 percent of our senior class works. Kids leave school at 2:30, they're at work at 4:30 and home at 10 p.m. That's not conducive to study skills."

"What I fear is that teachers will look at the socres and say, 'Your students' average is 10 points higher than mine. You must be covering the material better,'" said James Scanlan, an English teacher at Gaithersburg.

"We tried to make a test for the curriculum, but some students won't meet those standards in a hundred years," said English teacher Dave Sampselle, who added that he was not surprised by the test results. "We test each area as we go along, and we know how they're doing."

Some teachers found fault with the tests, which were composed largely of multiple-choice questions. After analyzing the test results last week, teachers concluded that some questions didn't work.

"If you have 400 kids take an exam and 380 of them miss an item, there may be a built-in bias in the question," said Zeiner.

"If over half the students missed an item, something's wrong with the question, so we didn't count it in the grades," said Ashby Bryson, head of the social studies department at Walt Whitman High School. The U.S. history exam had 68 multiple-choice questions, and the average number of correct answers among all students was 34. The students scored considerably better on the essays, however, raising their average score to about a C level.

"That's very low, particularly when most of the students are A and B students," said Bryson.

Others said students did poorly because it was the first time they had taken a two-hour, written final.

"They walk in there for the first time and there's a packet of 12 pages of test items facing them. That pressure affects them for at least the first part of the test," said Bethesda-Chevy Chase science teacher Edwin Schneck.

Scheduling problems resulted in students taking the same exam on different days, and teachers said they noticed that the average score was higher among students who took the exam later.

"There was a lot of cheating and that really bothered me," said Corky Hale, a senior at Gaithersburg.

"The kids were surprised by the final exams. They felt they had worked regularly and there wasn't a need to study rigorously, Zeiner said.

"I asked if the test was fair and they said it was, that it covered everything. I asked how many studied an hour or more and two hands went up," Scanlan said.

"I've never taken a two-hour class exam before. I think there was tension to excess," said Andrew Stoddard, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. "Nobody had an exam before 9 o'clock in the morning, but most people would show up at 7 and cram until the exam."

Some teachers blamed themselves for not getting through all the material in class.

"The results surprised me because I thought I taught them better," said Schneck. In raw scores, before a grading scale was applied, 17 of his 34 students failed the exam.

"I place a lot of the blame on myself. We had presumed that we were teaching them things with some permanency, and then we are hit with these test results. This is going to make me much more cognizant of what my colleagues are doing and has alerted me to the need of constantly assessing and providing feedback," he said.

Each department faced special problems in writing an exam that all teachers could give the students.

Teachers worked throughout the fall writing the exams, putting in many hours of their own time. The social studies department at Whitman started meeting in September, when they divided up the periods of U.S. history among the seven teachers giving the course.

Each made up questions, and then they combined them into an exam. But since each teacher had veto power, the process was slow.

"One person says, 'I don't go into the union movement at that particular time. I look at it in the '30s,' or 'I don't do any of the battles of World Wars I and II,'" said Edward Morris, a social studies teacher at Whitman.

"I look at what other teachers are doing and think 'Heck, I'm going to have to move my emphasis over to here. Therein lies the tragedy. We lost a minimum of one week of instruction for this exercise -- reviewing the semester and setting up the test itself. I devoted two days to World War II. Now that's criminal. I usually do two weeks on it," he said.

"The thing that I find most troubling is that this test is the lowest common denominator of the department. We're not testing to strengths but picking the fewest possible items we all taught," said Richard Abell, a Whitman social studies teacher.

"I think we're going to see an improvement in academic standards," said Marian L. Greenblatt, a school board member who supports the testing policy. "Maybe this is a way for departments to beef up their standards and to force students to study."

Board member Blair Ewing asked last month that the exams be postponed for a year. He was supported by student board member Traci Williams, who said, "If we agree there are bugs in the system, I don't think we should use students as guinea pigs." The board voted to go ahead with the tests.

Greenblatt said the teachers she spoke with last week were pleased with the different atmosphere in the schools during exam week, and the seriousness with which students were studying for the tests.

For years teachers have had the choice of giving their students a final examination or asking them to do what was called a "culminating activity" -- a term paper or course-related project. The conservative school board believes culminating activities are too permissive and has demanded final exams instead.

"I think the culminating activity I used to do is more beneficial than these multiple-guess exams," said Morris. "They had to turn in a term paper. Now they are no longer writing term papers; but they do know how to put a No. 2 pencil between two lines or in a circle."