During the past week, parents of fourth- through ninth-graders started receiving their children's CRT scores with results from last spring's tests.

Those sheets of paper, with their thermometer graphs, have always baffled me, so I asked Marlene Hartzman, head of the county's Department of Educational Accountability, to explain them. They are pretty complicated, but I think I understand enough to at least start a discussion.

To begin at the beginning, CRTs stands for Criterion Referenced Tests, which simply means that they are tests of how well students mastered the county's curriculum. However, the CRTs test only reading, writing and math, not what students learned in science, social studies or the arts. So they are not tests of the entire curriculum, just part of it. Future CRTs, Hartzman said, may include essay questions on what the students studied in science and social studies. That would make the tests a better measure, but we're not there yet.

Second, don't confuse CRTs with MSPAPs (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program). CRTs are administered by Montgomery County, and MSPAPs are administered by the state of Maryland. The two tests perform different functions: CRTs test individual kids in third through eighth grades; MSPAPs evaluate how well schools and school systems are functioning by testing their students at key points--third, fifth and eighth grades. The MSPAP results are reported later in the year.

CRTs are an important measure of how Montgomery County thinks your child is doing, and in some ways are more serious than grades because they are unfiltered by the possibly more subjective judgment of a teacher. They are a way of seeing how much material your child has mastered in relation to children in the rest of your child's school and the county. They also give a rough idea of how your child's school is doing by saying what the scores are for the top 25, 50 and 75 percent of students in both the school and the rest of the county.

The tests are scored on a scale from 200 to 900. The best thing for you to see is a thermometer with a score of at least 650 on both math and reading/language arts, indicating that your child has mastered the curriculum. Higher is obviously better, and anything over 800 is very good indeed. If the scores stay steady from year to year, that means that your child has mastered another year's worth of material at the same level as the year before.

What you do not want to see is a score that drops significantly from one year to the next. Wild swings at the very top and very bottom are less significant, statistically speaking, than those in the middle. This is because only a few questions are used to distinguish between, say, 800 and the top score of 900, whereas many more questions are used to distinguish between a score of 600 and 700. But you still want to pay attention to changes.

The problem may be as simple as your child not feeling well the day of the test. But if that was not the case, then you should make sure your child is given extra help to catch up. Your child may have been embroiled in a family crisis last year that kept him or her from learning, or your child may have had a teacher who was not particularly skilled at teaching the curriculum. Or, possibly, your child is bored and needs additional challenges.

One of the best uses of the CRTs is to help teachers and schools pinpoint what instruction individual children need and how they themselves need to improve their teaching. In theory, the county's new computer system--if and when it finally works properly--will provide the data analysis that will allow for that. It will, for example, provide principals with the CRT scores broken down in such a way that they can easily tell who their most effective teachers are and who needs help in which areas. It also will provide teachers with detailed analysis of what their classes did and didn't learn.

Although this kind of data analysis can be used as a weapon by principals against low-performing teachers, the real point is to give teachers a tool they can use to improve. If, for example, an entire class showed a real mastery of numerals and place values but a weakness in fractions, the teacher can seek--with no shame--help teaching fractions. He or she can then seek out a fellow teacher who had the opposite results and share teaching techniques, or take an additional math course, or get additional training from county resource teachers.

At the same time, the principal of the school can make sure those students who didn't learn fractions the previous year get additional instruction so that a small difference in knowledge doesn't snowball into a major deficit. Similarly, if most children in a school are having trouble using commas to mark off dependent clauses, principals can organize a schoolwide effort to address that problem.

In this way, CRTs have tremendous potential to be useful and a tool for reform.

Until now, unless principals have taken on the laborious process of analyzing their own data--and only some valiant data mavens have--the more common use of CRTs has been simply to sort children into reading and math groups and, in middle school, into gifted-and-talented and non-gifted-and-talented classes. That makes the CRTs much more important to their children's future than most parents realize.

So parents should look closely at their child's scores. If they seem wrong in some way, call the principal and ask to see your child's test, keeping in mind that it takes a few days to retrieve the tests from the warehouse. Look to see if your child's test performance matches his or her other school work and to see the specific topics that need to be addressed. Then discuss any concerns you have with your child's teachers and principal. Parent conferences are coming up in November, and Hartzman says these provide an excellent opportunity to discuss CRT scores in the context of what the school is doing to "stretch your child's strengths and address his or her weaknesses."

And Hartzman says she wants to make the CRT reports more informative and easier to understand than they are now. If you have any ideas about how to do that, send them to her at Room 11, 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, Md. 20850.

SATs Rest on Students

Dear Homeroom:

Your comments on SAT scores (Sept. 16) were well timed in view of Superintendent Jerry Weast's pronouncement that there will be a closing of the gaps in scores among black, Hispanic, white and Asian students.

Unfortunately, both you and Dr. Weast miss the point on responsibility for disparities in scores--it's the students, stupid.

Every teacher and principal I have known, in a long career, has encouraged all their students to reach for excellence and have helped many to attain some measure of it. Nevertheless, the ultimate choice is the student's.

Bill Welsh

Kensington

I should point out for those who may think you are being insulting that your rhetoric parallels mine when I said, hoping no one would take offense, "It's the curriculum, stupid." I was saying that students who want to do well on the SAT need to take the most rigorous curriculum available.

Of course, students bear a great deal of responsibility for how well they do in school. But your comments ignore the fact that too often African American and Latino students in Montgomery County are discouraged from taking rigorous classes and sometimes even excluded from them. Then, when their SAT scores are lower than those of white students--who on average take more of those advanced classes that best prepare them for the SAT--they are told it is their fault. That's simply not fair.

With impeccable timing to illustrate this very point, a middle school principal just showed me a list of African American and Latino eighth-graders in his school whose seventh-grade CRT scores should have guaranteed them a space in algebra class but who weren't recommended by their teachers. In some way, the kids didn't seem like algebra students to their math teachers, even though they were academically prepared to be there.

The principal in question is getting those particular students moved into algebra classes this year, but I wish I were sure that all principals and teachers are looking that closely at their data and ensuring that their schools are living up to the responsibilities that are properly theirs.

Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St. Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.