Grades in middle school never get checked out by college admissions officers. Middle school students' scores on the state's standardized test never make it back to them. And the students can fail classes and still move on to the next grade.

Howard County Board of Education members say that middle school students can flounder without consequence and that they want to change that. At a meeting last week, board members sent back to the drawing board a proposed policy on deciding whether middle schoolers are promoted, with instructions to make it far tougher for struggling students to move on.

Said board member Jane B. Schuchardt, a former middle school teacher: "We have too many kids who are very capable in middle school who look at it as, 'It doesn't count. I don't have to work. I'll work when I get to high school.' By then, they're left behind."

Students now can be promoted from eighth to ninth grade even if they fail core classes. But high school tests that students will have to pass to receive a diploma loom in a few years, and teachers and principals are already complaining that students enter high school unprepared for algebra and other higher skills. So board members and others are concerned that even the proposed, tougher standards aren't tough enough.

"Generally, there's a recognition that we can't afford to send kids to high school and allow them to enroll in courses in which they're not prepared," said Martha Johnson, special assistant to the superintendent and head of the promotion and retention committee. "It's not enough to pass the class. They're going to have to pass the test."

What board members want is a policy with more teeth, one that would be unique in Maryland. They want it stated not that a child who doesn't pass certain tests could be held back but that the student will be held back.

In its proposed revision of the policy presented last week, the committee added several ways the system can give extra help to unprepared students before they move on to the next grade. For example, a student who does not pass the Maryland Functional Tests in reading, writing or mathematics in sixth or seventh grade would get extra help from teachers and could be recommended for summer school.

A student who had not passed the functionals by the end of eighth grade would have to enroll in a summer course and automatically would be considered for retention. After the summer, a student who still had not passed the tests would be placed in remedial classes in high school before being allowed to take high school-level algebra, geometry and English.

There would be exceptions for some students with disabilities, depending on their individualized educational programs.

The functional tests, which are written at a fifth-grade level and given starting in sixth grade, must be passed before a student can graduate from high school. But board members said students should be able to pass them much earlier. Instead of merely being considered for retention, they said, eighth-graders who did not pass the functional tests should be held back automatically.

"If you can't read write or do math on a fifth-, sixth-grade level," said board Vice Chairman Stephen C. Bounds, "what are you doing in high school?"

The board suggested that students below a certain grade-point average at the end of eighth grade be prohibited from playing sports for the first quarter of ninth grade, as happens with high school students in the higher grades.

Also, members asked that the promotion and retention committee--which was made up of elementary and middle school and central office representatives--include teachers or administrators from high schools during the additional policy study, so they can discuss the ways in which some students aren't prepared.

They hope that the new policy is completed in time to be implemented for the 2000-01 academic year.