The Montgomery County Board of Education yesterday moved to standardize high school final exams in several subjects and set a countywide grading scale for them, creating a panel to grapple with a tough question: When is an A an A?

Students currently take countywide final exams in Algebra I and foreign languages. School officials are writing and field-testing final exams in biology, English, social studies and geometry.

In the past, all county high schools gave the same algebra test, but each could devise its own grading scale and standards for passing--a practice that was criticized last year when board members discovered how variable those standards were.

The board yesterday ordered the creation of a work group--to include parents, teachers, students and staff members--to devise a uniform way to grade the tests.

"An A at Einstein should mean the same thing that it does at Whitman," said board member Beatrice B. Gordon (At Large), referring to two schools that set different scales on the Algebra I exams.

The issue came to a head last year when board members discovered that a passing score on the county's Algebra I final exam ranged from 33 percent at Kennedy High School to 58 percent at Wootton. A score of 35 percent meant students passed the test at Einstein, and 55 percent was the cutoff at Whitman.

Although grading scales varied on foreign language exams, with passing scores ranging from 55 to 60 percent, the swings were not as wide as on the algebra exam.

"We had not monitored that carefully in previous years," said Deputy Superintendent Steven G. Seleznow.

Revelations of variances sparked some parents groups, particularly Latino parents at Einstein, to push their schools to do better.

"There's great concern among the board and the public that students who could aspire to do better don't have the opportunity," said Ginny Hillhouse, of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. "Because the teachers' expectations of them are low, they're getting A's when they should be getting B's and C's."

Board member Kermit Burnett said that the variation in grades confirmed fears about watered-down curricula, grade inflation and lowering standards and that the practice hurt children because it was "less than honest."

Another significant force behind the push for more standardized tests and uniform grading is new statewide high school assessment tests, proposed for 2002. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has said that as many as 30 percent of seniors would likely fail them.

"We will have parents storming this building," said board President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), if students earn A's and B's throughout high school and can't pass the graduation exams.

This year, the county has set new standard grades for the county-wide Algebra exam that ninth-graders take this month. The results may be revealing. When the county raised the passing standard last June after the outcry, the number of students who failed the test jumped from 29 to 42 percent. Still, course grades did not change.

Patti Flynn, director of the county's Department of Academic Programs, said setting uniform grades is no easy task. Teachers themselves devise very different standards. Other school systems use portfolio assessments or running records, to measure a student's progress over time.

"This is not a precise science," Flynn said. "Everyone has a different opinion about how to grade. It's a no-win situation. We will bring consistency. But it won't come quickly. And it won't come easily."

With 9,200 teaching staff members, all with their own grading methods and scales, Weast acknowledged that changing the way teachers work will be one of the biggest hurdles in bringing about consistent grading scales. "It's going to be a huge cultural change," he said.

CAPTION: School board member Beatrice B. Gordon wants standard grading.