A SUBURBAN public-school district in Maryland reached a milestone this year: Whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics in Montgomery County all passed the state's ninth-grade writing test at comparable rates - at or above 96 percent.
These results are at the forefront of a nationwide trend - closing racial gaps in education.
Historically, whites have scored higher than minority groups on standardized tests. But a 1992 United States Department of Education report, "The Condition of Education," says the disparity between black and white test results is narrowing.
"The gap is closing," says Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information in Washington. "The Montgomery County results support overall research [showing] that when kids are expected to perform at high levels, they do."
When the test was first given in 1983, whites in the district passed at 69 percent, and blacks scored 45 percent. This year, 99 percent of whites passed, and blacks passed at 97 percent.
Many attribute these results to an approach that expects all students to do well, uses tests composed of open-ended essay questions without bias toward a particular background, and teaches writing "across the curriculum" - not only in English classes. Although many school districts are trying new teaching methods to raise scores, Montgomery County is one of the first to show such success.
But some observers suspect that simple economic factors are at work. Robert Hochstein, assistant to the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton, N.J., says that, although the county's results are a sign of progress, they are also the sign of a county with a great deal of money.
Katheryn Gemberling, Montgomery County deputy superintendent for instruction, says it's the county's method. "The focus is on success for every student," she says. "We have even raised our standards and heightened our expectations."
The county begins to teach writing in kindergarten, emphasizes computer labs where editing is easier, and teaches journal writing. Children also critique each other's work and assess their own progress.
Ridding tests of bias may also be a factor. The 1993 test consisted of two essay questions. Students were asked to explain one task or chore that they do not like to do, and also to write about something funny that happened to them or someone else.
According to Monty Neill of Fair Test in Cambridge, Mass., an organization that monitors bias in standardized tests, more schools should use such open-ended and unbiased questions. An example of a biased essay question, he says, is the old "What did you do on your summer vacation?" Not all kids go away on a vacation, Mr. Neill points out.
The racial gaps in other tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, are starting to close as well, says Dr. Feistritzer. "The issue of responding to the inequities is showing up in scores."