MONTGOMERY COUNTY school officials swear they are not, as reported, planning to cut music, art, gym and other less-than-academic activities from kindergarten. What they want, they say -- and what the county board of education approved -- is to replace the current schedule with a "rigorous, accelerated, literacy-based curriculum" in which everything, including art and music activity, is pulled into the service of teaching kindergarten children to read, write and do math. No longer will 5-year-olds be expected to learn mainly social skills. "The commonly held perceptions of young children being incapable of accelerated instruction are incorrect," says Patricia Flynn, director of academic programs.

The county is taking part, with a vengeance, in the current push for higher standards at all levels. It sees evidence as early as kindergarten that the less-privileged students lag in achievement, and, rather than merely bridge the gap, wants to raise the bar for everybody. Full-day kindergartens have been shown to help kids catch up when they come from homes with less educational enrichment. Whether enrichment amounts to the same thing as a relentlessly academic schedule is another question.

Do all children really need to leave kindergarten knowing how to read, write and compute? Montgomery officials insist that the best private schools have such expectations. But the vision of a school day where no activity is considered worthwhile unless it advances the goals of reading, writing or math is a bit discomforting. Official schedules attached to the proposal show current art instruction (200 minutes a week for full-day programs) replaced by the notation "integrated into the center work." Any art that's done will be expected to carry lessons on counting, naming and so forth. The same with music; kids won't just sing "holiday songs" but will be encouraged to link singing notes to reading letters.

The danger is that children will be deprived not just of the pleasure of drawing or singing but of a message that these activities are intrinsically valuable. Standardized tests that gauge curriculum do not, as yet, include art, music or the education that emerges from play. That makes it all too easy to squeeze them out in a quest for "rigor."