The Montgomery County school board gave unanimous approval yesterday to a plan that could radically change the way students are graded.

The proposed policy, which will be out for public comment until final board action March 24, is aimed at removing some of the subjectivity from grading. It would move away from allowing teachers to give students high grades for effort or good behavior and more toward mastery of "cold, hard facts."

"We're trying to make grades consistent from teacher to teacher, building to building and subject to subject across the county," Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said at yesterday's board meeting. "That's going to be difficult."

Under a policy set a decade ago, students are now graded according to the objectives teachers give to them, and a teacher's instruction and expectations differ based on an individual student's level of ability.

But that, some claim, has led to grade inflation, social promotion and watered-down standards.

"I hear from parents all the time who say when their child gets their grades, they're pleased and proud. Then he fails on a standardized assessment," said school board member Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County). "What parents don't realize is that the work that's being assigned may be one, two or three grade levels behind the rest of the class."

In the proposed system, the report cards would make clear what the standard is for work considered "on grade level" and spell out just how far above or below that line each student falls.

"What could happen is that a number of students who now maintain an honor status may not have that status," Felton said.

The proposed policy is a direct result of the Algebra I debacle of four years ago, when Montgomery school officials admitted that the rosy results of the countywide Algebra I exam were a sham. At that time, individual schools were able to change the test, delete items and set their own grading scales. An A at one county high school translated into a D at another.

As a result, Weast standardized the test -- and endured a few years of failure rates as high as 90 percent at some schools -- and appointed a work group that has been wrangling for more than a year to come up with the recommendations made public yesterday.

The goal, Weast said, is to make sure grades accurately predict how a student may perform on standardized tests.

"Teachers say, 'Well, he tried hard; I gave him a grade for trying hard,' " he said. "Yet when the new [Maryland] high school exams come and are required for graduation, the cold, hard fact is, he didn't pass."

To up the ante and get students to take tests more seriously, the policy proposes increasing the weight of high school final exams from 25 percent to 30 percent of the course grade. That idea has created an uproar among some parents concerned about overstressed students. The countywide student organization also passed a resolution against it, saying the move would force teachers to teach to the test.

Mark Simon, head of the local teachers union, said teachers are most concerned that the planned changes would devalue what goes on in classrooms every day. "On paper, they've given students less reason to come to class, if all you have to do is do well on the final exam," he said. "And that would be a travesty."

"We're trying to make grades consistent," School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said.