I hope everyone is settled well into the school year. I would hope that by now all the troubles with crowded buses, sudden influxes of unexpected students and shortages of textbooks have been ironed out, but I know all those problems won't be resolved for at least another couple of weeks. So my backup hope is that teachers are able to teach and students able to learn despite all those problems. If anyone has any beginning-of-year stories you want to share, send them on in.

Dear Homeroom:

I have a child in a second-grade magnet program and have for three years greatly admired the diversity in the classroom. This year, my second child started kindergarten, and I do not see the same diversity. Has the magnet office recently made changes that I am not aware of? If so, what are they and what is the rationale?

E.R. Snider

College Park

I asked Susan Miller, the magnet coordinator for Prince George's public schools, and she said that without knowing which school your children attend, it is difficult to give you a definitive answer about your individual situation. The general answer, however, is that from year to year, there may be fluctuations in the diversity of a particular program but not through any decision on her part. Some may have become less diverse simply because of recent population shifts.

"Many of our neighborhood magnets have suffered from overcrowding," she said, "making it more difficult to reserve places for students from outside the community."

To give a little background for those who don't know, Prince George's developed magnet programs as one response to a desegregation order by the courts in the early 1970s. The other part of the court order required students--mostly African American students--to be bused outside their neighborhoods to integrate the then-overwhelmingly white schools. That second, involuntary part of the court order was modified last year, in part because the demographics of the county have changed. The first, voluntary part is mostly still in place. But because the involuntary busing is ending, some of the neighborhood magnet schools are crowded, which has lessened the number of seats available for children from outside the neighborhood.

This may be why you are seeing less diversity in your child's class. It is also why the county is building 13 new schools.

It is possible that the new schools will become overwhelmingly African American, thereby resegregating the school system and potentially triggering a new court busing order. That is why the school system is looking at what kinds of magnets should be put into those new schools to attract white students from outside their enrollment boundaries.

This has prompted a major study, which should be finished in October, to evaluate all the existing magnets, including data on how successful they are at integrating their student bodies, how successful they are in educating children and how popular they are with parents. This study will give the county some guidance as to which programs to replicate in the new schools. The magnet office also is looking at programs throughout the country to see whether there are any successful ideas that should be brought to Prince George's.

There are several types of magnets in Prince George's public schools. One is the "non-dedicated" magnet, a separate program housed in a larger school. Some people call such magnets schools-within-schools. At the elementary level, 13 schools house three different kinds of non-dedicated magnet programs: the Talented and Gifted (beginning in third grade), the Montessori and the French Immersion. In each case, if a student who lives in the enrollment area of the school qualifies, he or she is automatically enrolled in the magnet. The rest of the seats are filled by lottery of qualified students from outside the neighborhood. Parents need to know that their children need to be in the Montessori and the French Immersion programs from the beginning. In fact, in the case of Montessori, they need to be in a Montessori program by at least age 4 to qualify. In the French Immersion program, children who are not in the program by kindergarten must be native speakers of French to be considered for enrollment.

The second general type of magnet program is the "dedicated," or "neighborhood," magnet in which a neighborhood school has a special emphasis, such as on math and science. Seats not taken by neighborhood children are filled by lottery.

Then there is the most popular of all the magnets, Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts, which each year has a waiting list of 1,200 children. Its enrollment is selected entirely by lottery, and it draws from throughout the county. The student body is 70 percent African American and 30 percent non-African American. Its appeal, Miller said, is partly its successful academic record, partly its success in inspiring children to pursue creative careers and partly because it is a kindergarten through eighth-grade school, giving it a cohesion rarely found in elementary schools. Besides, she says, it offers a full-day kindergarten, which many parents want.

The October report on the magnets will be must reading for anyone interested in the issue, but if you have a pressing question before then, call Susan Miller at 301-952-6014.

The Lesson Behind the MSPAP

Not too long ago, a parent asked me a question that I suspect is on the minds of many Prince George's parents. "I seem to hear about nothing but the state tests," the parent said. "They dominate the whole year. It doesn't seem right that the teachers teach to them so much."

Parents find the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests (fondly known as MSPAPs) difficult to understand because they are so radically different from any test we ever took. Most of us remember the Iowa Basics, or the California Achievement Tests or some other test that required sitting and filling in little circles with pencils. The MSPAPs, in contrast, take most of a week and involve several long, complex questions that require a great deal of analysis and writing and even some group work. The essential idea behind them is that teachers will always teach to the test, whatever the test is. That's bad if the tests are low quality and good if the tests are high quality.

It is frustrating for Prince George's parents to see that so many county schools perform poorly. One thing to remember is that the tests were designed to spur improvements in school systems, and to do that, they were made much more difficult than most of the national tests. If the MSPAPs were as easy to do well on as some of those national tests, it would help feed the natural tendency school systems have to be complacent and keep on doing what they're doing.

Although there are some problems with the MSPAPs, I consider them the best thing going in terms of kicking Maryland schools into high gear. You can see what I mean from the following story.

A few years ago, one of the top state testing officials spoke to an elementary school PTA meeting. He described how the questions worked and gave as an example one question that asked fifth-graders to devise a test of salinity in water. The students would use straws, water, salt and any other equipment needed and write a great deal about the procedure and results. I think paper clips and little metal pellets were involved, too. The parents were visibly impressed, seeing as few of us could do something like that, and were excited such things would be expected of our children.

With the air of interjecting a note of reality into all these high expectations, a reading teacher in attendance brought what seemed like her most powerful argument to the floor: "Salinity," she said, "is not a fifth-grade level word." This was code for a whole series of objections to the state tests, which essentially boil down to the idea that students shouldn't be pushed.

"It is if you teach it to them," the state expert responded.

In eight words, he had summed up the whole idea behind the state testing program--that is, that our children will learn what we teach them, and we haven't been teaching them nearly enough.

If you're interested in the MSPAP scores for your school, county and the rest of the state, they are available at www.msp.msde.state.md.us along with a boatload of information about how schools can begin the process of improvement. If you are not wired for the Internet at home, people at Prince George's County branch libraries can help you negotiate the process.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinion and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.