We were dismayed to learn of Prince George's County's decision to purchase $5.1 million worth of computers for second- and third-grade math instruction {news story, Feb. 3}. Computers are useful aids for children; they help them with language development and with problem-solving skills.

However, as a major tool for learning mathematical concepts, the computer is inferior to manipulative materials. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and early childhood math educators agree that children learn and retain mathematical concepts best by manipulating real objects that demonstrate the concept being taught. It is a serious disservice to the students of Prince George's to teach memorization rather than mathematical concepts.

The $5.1 million could be much better spent on more math "manipulatives" for every classroom, especially at the primary level, and on math specialists who would provide training in the use of the manipulatives and other exercises. Math manipulatives are not an integral part of basic math instruction in most Prince George's County schools. Math is taught primarily with workbooks and ditto sheets.

Further, computer use in instruction is limited by strict allocation of teachers' time, and by some teachers' limited training. Math specialists could travel between schools and train teachers and students in the use of manipulatives and in the use of the available computers. They could also work on developing and administering appropriate test methods, which test students' comprehension, not what they may have memorized.

Many of the county's educational tactics are understandably aimed at the most visible indicator of student achievement and improvement, the standardized test scores. However, in the quest for higher test scores, we may not be preparing students to understand and apply mathematics in future work. Let's not ignore what research tells us is the best way for young children to learn mathematics.

VIRGINIA D. McCONNELL

SALLIE TINNEY

College Park