The tests Montgomery County public schools use to measure their success show one thing this year: The district isn't successful enough. The 1999 scores on the Criterion Referenced Tests remained flat or fell slightly from last year.

The 1999 countywide scores, which will be released Monday, show that 70 percent of the students met the CRT reading standard. Only 58 percent met the math standard. And both scores are down slightly from last year.

Since the school system launched the exams six years ago as a way to gauge student's mastery of the county curriculum, the annual results have been eagerly anticipated. Some principals grade teachers by students' performances on the tests, while real estate agents frequently use the data to market neighborhoods and schools. Individual student scores were sent to parents last week.

The school system's goal, outlined in its touted Success for Every Student Plan, is for 75 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 to meet a proficiency standard in math and reading.

"I think this shows a little lethargy in the system," said Board of Education member Stephen N. Abrams (At Large).

Scores fell one to two points in eight of the 12 tests given over the grades. And, according to a memo by new Superintendent Jerry Weast, "Since 1994, there has been no significant progress on these tests."

Further, as students move from one grade to the next--the way Weast likes to measure productivity--he said there has been "little or no improvement."

African American and Hispanic students' scores lag behind their white and Asian peers'. For example, on the seventh-grade math test, 77 percent of Asian students met the standard and 72 percent of white students did. But the standard was met by only 29 percent of Hispanic and 26 percent of African American students. And county data show those gaps have remained stubbornly consistent over the years.

Many officials say the biggest change from last year is not the fact that the scores are "flat as a pancake," but that the school system is finally admitting it.

"These are not brand-new issues. We're just approaching them differently now," said Board of Education member Nancy J. King (Upcounty). "Before, we looked at these things internally and tried to solve them from the inside, rather than alarm the community. We're a whole lot more open now in identifying the problem, sharing with the community and looking together for a solution."

For Weast, the scores may reflect something he talks about at community and parent meetings: Simpson's Paradox. The mathematical formula, applied to the school system, means that even as individual scores increase, the countywide average score will drop as more lower-achieving students enroll.

School system demographer Bruce Crispell reported that students receiving free and reduced-price meals--one indicator of poverty--increased from 6 percent in 1975 to 22 percent in 1998. And white students now make up 50.7 percent of the 131,000 students, down from 52 percent in 1998 and 74 percent in 1982.

"It's not that we're experiencing white flight," Crispell said, "it's that other groups are growing faster."

For Weast, part of the solution lies with better teachers and better training to make them more sensitive to diverse students.

Weast said the scores point to the need to restructure the school bureaucracy and to design a school improvement plan, with equity funding for needy schools and interventions for those that are faltering. Both plans are to be completed this fall.

Still, some people question the value of the test and what the scores reveal.

"The problem with the CRT is that it's a 'homegrown' test," said Board of Education member Mona M. Signer (Rockville-Potomac). "It measures our students' performance on our curricula. But it doesn't tell us if we're teaching the right curricula. Or allow us to make comparisons either statewide or nationally."

MONTGOMERY CRITERION REFERENCED TESTS

Percentage of students meeting test standard*:

GRADE: 3

Mathematics**

`97: 59

`98: 61

`99: 59

Reading***

`94: 66

`95: 65

`96: 67

`97: 70

`98: 70

`99: 68

GRADE 4

Mathematics**

`97: 56

`98: 57

`99: 56

Reading***

`94: 67

`95: 67

`96: 69

`97: 69

`98: 72

`99: 71

GRADE 5

Mathematics**

`97: 60

`98: 62

`99: 60

Reading***

`94: 68

`95: 71

`96: 71

`97: 73

`98: 75

`99: 73

GRADE 6

Mathematics**

`97: 56

`98: 57

`99: 57

Reading***

`94: 67

`95: 67

`96: 67

`97: 67

`98: 69

`99: 70

GRADE 7

Mathematics**

`97: 62

`98: 60

`99: 60

Reading***

`94: 68

`95: 68

`96: 69

`97: 69

`98: 70

`99: 69

GRADE 8

Mathematics**

`97: 57

`98: 61

`99: 57

Reading***

`94: 68

`95: 68

`96: 68

`97: 70

`98: 71

`99: 71

AVERAGE

Mathematics**

`97: 58

`98: 60

`99: 58

Reading***

`94: 67

`95: 68

`96: 69

`97: 70

`98: 71

`99: 70

* Defined as students in general education and special education ntensities 1, 2, and 3 who have been in MCPS for at least 2 years.

** Mathematics results are reported for three years because the test was expanded and the standards were raised in 1996-97. Comparisons to results reported prior to 1997 are not valid. The mathematics results reflect performance on combined multiple-choice and open-ended items.

***The reading results reflect performance on multiple-choice items only.