Last year about this time, newspapers wrote glowing stories about how low-income children in the tiny Worcester County town of Pocomoke City had scored the highest of any third-graders in Maryland on standardized tests.

Parents and teachers in affluent, high-achieving suburbs of Washington and Baltimore were impressed. The Baltimore County school system even dispatched its elementary reading supervisor to the Eastern Shore community to see why so many third-graders there could read at fifth-grade levels.

What wasn't known at that time was that Pocomoke City's high test scores had resulted from what is known in education jargon as "pretesting."

Worchester County Schools Supt. Robert W. Gaddis explained it in simpler terms yesterday: "The principal cheated."

Gaddis said yesterday his office learned last spring that the Pocomoke pupils had been given mimeographed copies of the previous year's Iowa Test of Basic Skills as a way of preparing for the 1975-6 test. Because the same test is used each year, the Pocomoke third-graders "were given an unfair advantage," said assistant superintendent Donald Hastings.

Gaddis said that as a result of his investigation, the principal, John W. Tatem, was informed last May that department charges of "misconduct of office and insubordination" would be filed against him. Before the charges could be pursued, Gaddis said, the principal resigned. Tatem could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"We suspected something was wrong," Gaddis said, when the computerized test results showed that the Pocomoke third-graders had scored about 1 1/2 years above state and national norms, and about a year above the previous class of third-graders at the school.

"You ought to be able to guess about what the scores will be," Gaddis said, by looking at I.Q. scores and eduction and income levels of parents.

It was because the average I.Q. of Pocomoke's thir graders was 99 (compared to 110.3 for all of Montgomery County's third-graders) and that one-third came from families poor enough to qualify them for free-school lunches, that the big, affluent suburban school systems were interested in studying the Pocomoke method.

The Pocomoke youngsters outscored third-graders in Montgomery County, which has the highest system-wide scores in Maryland, in every category. In vocabulary, Pocomoke tested 5.11 (fifth year, 11th month). Montgomery 4.22; in reading, it was 5.13 to 4.27: language, 5.48 to 4.62; and mathematics, 4.53 to 4.23.

The cheating was discovered last spring, about the time that the 1976-7 tests were to be given. As a result, a different test was given to Pocomoke children, and the results were tabulated separately from the statewide, computerized scores. The matter came to public attention this week, when the latest results were announced by the State Board of Education, and no scores were listed for Pocomoke Elementary.

Gaddis said the 1976-77 results, on the different but comparable quiz, placed Pocomoke third-graders at 3.8, about the state and national norm.

In Iowa City, Dr. Leo Munday, vice president and general manager of the Houghton Mifflin Testing Co., originators of the Iowa test, said reports of cheating are "very infrequent." Munday said the only other example he could recall in recent years occurred in New York City, and it was discovered when principals of rival public schools complained about suspiciously high scores.

"It's not the usual situation for cheating," Munday said. "That usually occurs where the student has a lot at stake, such as entrance exams for medical and law school, or an state boards. These tests are designed to aid schools in evaluating their programs. Cheating might occure where there is pressure on a school or system to look good to outsiders."

Gaddis said there was "absolutely no pressure" on Tatem or anyone else in the 6,000-pupil Worcester County system to produce higher test scores.

Many schools have used standardized tests for decades to test performance against national norms, but it has been only in recent years that public comparison of scores has occurred.

The state Board of Education began a legislative mandated Maryland Accountability Program in the 1973-4 school year. The release of the results annually has produced newspaper stories and editorials, in addition to scrutiny of individual school scores by parents and educators.

Gus Crenson, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said each school system is told what pretesting techniques are permitted and what are not. Because the computerized tests are new and complicated to lower-grade pupils, teachers are permitted to give practice tests that acquaint children with multiple-choice questions, how to pencil in answer squares and stop-watch timing. These tests do not include any questions from the real test.

The same tests are used year after year to assure uniformity of scoring, and because the preparation of new tests is very expensive, Crenson said.

Charles H. Lynch of Berlin, president of the Worcester County Board of Education, said yesterday he is "satisified the situation has been remedied by the superintendent."

Lynch said that the investigation that led to the principal's resignation was not made public, so "we haven't had an complaints from parents. I hope non of the kids was hurt by it," Lynch added.

Hastings, the assistant superintendent, said he is satisified that "the existing faculty is committed to our kids. We have a good program. Our kids can read."*