The first grading period of the school year has just ended in Montgomery County -- with a question mark.

How will new grading guidelines introduced in elementary and middle schools this fall translate on report cards being mailed to homes next week? For answers to this question and countless others, the school system will direct parents, teachers and students to one man: Rock Palmisano, operator of the county's grading and reporting hotline.

Palmisano, an instructional specialist, is at the vanguard of the system's public relations offensive, which was designed to assuage fears and address concerns about sweeping changes the school board approved in 2003 but put on hold until this fall. So far, the effort has included months of community meetings and brochures sent home in students' backpacks.

"This is all part of an extensive outreach," said Palmisano, who also answered dozens of questions from teachers as they filled out report cards. He is gearing up to run the three-day hotline Wednesday through Nov. 12, coinciding with the arrival of grades.

Administrators say the new guidelines, which are not required in high schools until the 2005-06 school year, are designed to ensure that grades are based solely on mastery of academic material, rather than on such intangibles as how hard a student tries.

They are supposed to mean the same thing from one classroom to the next, with an "A" given for scores ranging from 90 to 100, a "B" for 80 to 89, and so on, with 50 the lowest possible grade for an assignment.

And the grades should be based more on major evaluations than on quizzes and homework assignments along the way.

Trying to standardize grading across the county "is a serious endeavor, and it's going to take a lot of dialogue to make it work," Palmisano said.

Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association -- the teachers union -- said a majority of teachers are adjusting to grading strictly on mastery of academic material. But she said some teachers are having trouble finding time to re-teach material. Part of the new guidelines requires teachers to give students another shot at learning a concept if they don't demonstrate mastery on a test the first time around.

Palmisano said he has fielded countless questions on this topic and one other: Teachers are struggling with outdated software as they try to tally grades on the new scale.

This is the first step in a five-year process of implementation and outreach, said Karen Harvey, director of the school system's curriculum and instruction department. The long-term goal is to have all teachers grading on county standards, eliminating much variation from school to school, she said.

Because the changes are complex, Harvey said she expects that the hotline will be busy next week. "We anticipate a lot of different people calling in with questions," she said. "This is a new process. Parents are curious. If these are their children, it's very personal to them."

The hotline number is 301-279-3556. Calls will be answered from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Nov. 12. On the final day, the hotline will be staffed by interpreters who speak Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese.

Questions about a specific student's performance should be directed to schools, Harvey said.