An independent audit of Prince William County schools curriculum faulted the district for not having an adequate long-range plan for instructional improvement, for denying students equal educational opportunities and for stressing rote learning at the expense of broader skills, according to a preliminary report released last week.

The audit was conducted this fall by the Arlington-based American Association of School Administrators to see whether instructors were teaching what the school system's curriculum says should be taught and, if so, how well students were learning.

Superintendent Edward Kelly had advocated the audit, saying an outside assessment was needed if the school system was to improve, and it was approved by the School Board.

The audit committee spent a week in late October interviewing board members, administrators, teachers, parents and students, as well as visiting classes and reviewing policies and curriculum documents.

Officials said they were aware of many of the problems cited in the $41,000 report and have been working to correct them. Other problems will be reviewed after the final report is presented to the School Board next month.

"I think it's a major step to look at ourselves this critically," Kelly said. "It gives us more ammunition to do things we thought needed to be done. In the area of curriculum improvement, it is one of the most important things we've done in a long time."

The report took the system to task for inequalities in opportunity, expectations and materials with regard to gender, race and ethnic background.

"All students can learn," Kelly said, repeating a school slogan. "But saying that from my office and having it happen in the classroom are two different things. That's something we have to check out."

Kelly said the system is already working to redress material differences between old and new schools by setting standards for what kind of equipment every school should have, helping needy ones catch up and providing extra funds to older sites. Kelly said that long-unnoticed inequalities surfaced with this year's districtwide switch to site-based management and that they would be addressed in the system's long-term planning documents.

William Cox, associate superintendent for instruction, said he was disturbed by the report's assertion that "higher-order thinking skills" are slighted in favor of facts.

"If you're teaching kids rote learning, you're not really teaching them how to learn," he said. "We're going to have to do a broad and sweeping review of our entire curriculum. It is going to take a massive effort. We can't do this all at one time."

Kelly said he thought one of the most significant findings was that the criteria reference test is flawed. The exam is used to measure the board's objectives.

Other findings:Confusion between board policies and regulations. Inconsistent curriculum monitoring by principals and various levels of instructional sophistication/competence among principals, including some with "nearly zero." Lack of tracking students as they move through the schools, and following up on graduates.

School officials said several items in the preliminary report are not likely to be in the final version after the audit committee reviews additional documents it did not have time to read.

For instance, the report said there is no special education curriculum, while school officials said there is and have furnished the committee with that information.

"I'm happy they did as thorough a job as they appear to have done," Cox said.

"We really got what we looking for. We're not disappointed. Obviously, we don't like to think there's a lot we can improve, but they can help us grow. There's a degree of objectivity to the report that we could not give."