Last fall, while other youngsters spent recess on swings and slides, the third graders at Dodge Park Elementary School were at work in the computer lab: The daily warmup included 50 multiplication problems, followed by a round of "Speedway Math," a computer program that challenges them to beat the clock as they zoom around an on-screen race track solving math problems.

The dedication paid off. Dodge Park's third graders scored in the 99th percentile in math on one of the country's major standardized exams, a feat unmatched in Prince George's County's history and shared by only 1 percent of the 6 million schoolchildren who take the California Achievement Test each year.

"The score means they did better than 99 percent of the people who took it when {the test} was developed" in 1985, said Prince George's schools research director Elwood Loh. A ranking in the 99th percentile does not necessarily reflect near-perfect scores. Rather, Loh explained, a group would have to, on average, correctly answer at least 75 of the 85 items on the math test.

It is a heady distinction for Dodge Park, which is responsible for educating some of the poorest children in Prince George's County. Isolated atop a hill that looks over worn garden apartments, Dodge Park's 506-member student body is 95 percent black, all but 10 percent from homes with incomes low enough to qualify for federally sponsored free or reduced-price lunches.

Yet here, in a one-level building that sits just off Landover Road behind the Dodge Plaza shopping center, 90 third graders defied national and local trends that show that minority children generally score below white students, and below the national average, on standardized tests. Their overall score in reading, language, spelling and math ranked them at the 94th percentile.

"They're obviously doing something most schools aren't," said John Stewart, senior manager for the California Test Bureau, which publishes the CAT.

Dodge Park's formula for success includes small classes, a curriculum strong in basic skills and a well-organized staff that starts preparing students in kindergarten for the third-grade CAT.

Recent years have brought an avalanche of criticism directed at test-oriented teaching, with critics asserting that it stifles creativity and takes time away from other learning experiences because students spent substantial time preparing for standardized tests.

But instructors and staff at Dodge Park said the achievement of third graders was primarily the result of a philosophy of "high expectations for all children." Their technique, patterned after one developed by Yale medical school professor James Comer, considers building confidence and self-esteem crucial in proving that socioeconomic conditions facing many black students need not keep them from excelling.

Principal John R. Webster Jr. says that Dodge Park's success has wide implications: "It means all students can learn, all students can be successful if you teach them the skills."

In a school system that in recent years has made significant academic strides on every level, Prince George's already is looking for ways to duplicate Dodge Park's accomplishments.

Some of the factors -- a high-expectations philosophy and well-defined plans -- have long been extolled by Superintendent John A. Murphy and are common in many schools. But Dodge Park's smaller classes, special resource teachers and computer labs are not found in most Prince George's schools. These are the benefits of being among the county's 18 compensatory, or Milliken, schools -- those that receive additional staff and resources because of the inability to desegregate them.

As a result, Dodge Park's classroom teachers routinely work with special math and language instructors, dividing children into groups of as few as seven.

In a third-grade class of 23 students, for example, "{one teacher} would be working on word problems, I would be working on telling time and the classroom teacher would be working with the metric system," special math teacher Marethea Bethea said.

Dodge Park's students surpassed the average of their white counterparts in the county by 15 points and outperformed other black youngsters by 30 points.

Countywide, Prince George's students made significant gains on the California Achievement Test and have shown steady improvement on other standardized tests. The latest CAT results show students overall moving toward the 70th percentile, while black students, narrowing the performance gap with whites, are surpassing the 60th percentile for the first time.

Two years ago, when math test scores of Dodge Park third graders hovered around the 64th percentile, principal Webster ordered a schoolwide approach to teaching the skills covered by the CAT. First-grade teachers built on the lessons of kindergarten; second-grade teachers embellished those primary lessons, and so on. In a sense, today's third graders have been preparing for the test for two years.

The preparation is evident when a question -- such as what's 12 times 12 -- is put to one of the third graders chosen at random.

"That's easy for me," replied Phillip Avent, 8. "I've been studying times tables since second grade."

So enthusiastic were youngsters with the computer programs introduced last year by Bethea that most still spend recess in the computer lab.

Teachers also pattern their own exams after the CAT by posing questions in the same form and giving the same time allotment. Students received tips in test-taking strategy: How to use scratch paper and transfer the solution to an answer sheet, whether to skip or guess at a difficult problem and how to keep track of time.

Despite criticism about the emphasis on test-taking, Dodge Park's staff doesn't apologize for imparting what it believes are skills that can guarantee future success.

"Our kids will not be successful in anything if they're not able to succeed in taking tests," Webster said. "Even our teachers now, if they can't pass the {teaching certification} test, they're not going to get the job."

Teachers Ellen Gardner and Heidi McCall say that all teachers take special care in formulating lessons to ensure that each child sees his own successes, however small. Such confidence-boosting practices include starting out with the simple tasks students are unlikely to fail.

"I'm smart," Florinda Vaughan, 9, said matter-of-factly, explaining the ease with which she does math. She knows the value of the lessons. "It's something important. If you have money, you'll know how to use it."

As a result of all this, the youngsters have become test savvy, knowledgeable about the impact tests can have on their aspirations for college or for becoming doctors, ice skaters, ballet dancers, police officers, nurses and football players.

Despite all the savvy and preparations, including a pep rally before the 13 days of testing began last November, Phillip Avent says he recorded his final answers with a lot of reserve.

"I thought {the CAT} was hard," he said, "I thought I wasn't going to pass it."

Explained third-grade teacher Jacqueline Glover, "They're just normal kids."