For some, it's the best way to keep students from coasting through school without learning the skills they need to flourish in a complex society. For others, it smacks of a national government agenda to shape the way children think and make them question values taught at home. But one thing is certain. The latest trend in American schools -- known as outcomes-based education -- is a subject Maryland parents will be hearing a lot about in the next few years. The concept is the underpinning of a tough new series of "performance-based" tests the state school board is considering a requirement for a high school diploma, beginning with the freshman class of 1996. And that means schools across the state may be switching to some form of this method to be sure their students can pass the new tests. The idea behind outcomes-based education is simple: Decide what students must know and don't allow any child to graduate until he demonstrates he has learned the material, even if that means giving him second and third chances. Don't focus on the grade. Focus on the outcome. "All we have now is input education," said Len Duffy, a Towson father who heads a committee on outcomes for Baltimore County schools. "We have seat time. If a student isn't obnoxious and attends school, he gets a diploma." Opponents see something entirely different in the outcomes approach, partly because in setting goals educators often use jargon about what children will be like when they graduate. That raises fears that schools will teach values that might conflict with what students learn at home. "Outcomes-based . . . schools will become assembly lines that produce thoroughly indoctrinated, politically correct labor units or nonpersons," said William Bowen of Westminster, one of the leaders in a Carroll County activist group opposing the county's decision to adopt outcomes. The subject is so sensitive that the state board carefully avoided calling its new tests "outcomes-based." The board emphasizes that the testing program has nothing to do with values or lifestyles, but focuses solely on making sure students can demonstrate skills before they graduate. Pervasive approach If the outcomes approach sounds familiar, that is because it is what many teachers have always used. But now, school districts want the approach to be pervasive, applying to every teacher, every student. William Spady, a Colorado consultant known as the country's outcomes guru for his work in helping school systems establish programs and conducting seminars on the topic, said the concept is based on these principles: * School systems should have a clear set of goals for students, established with the cooperation of educators and parents. Everything teachers do should then be adjusted to meet those goals. * Teachers must not be allowed to assume that some students will fail. The expectation should be that all children can and must learn essential skills. * Students who have trouble should get more than one chance to learn something, and teachers should use a variety of approaches. This concept, known as "mastery learning," is one of the pillars of outcomes. Often it involves having children work in groups to draw on one another's strengths. When a school district embraces outcomes, officials and parents generally begin with the big picture -- coming up with five to 10 "exit out comes" that serve as a guiding philosophy for the more specific goals in each course or grade level. In Carroll County, for example, the "exit outcomes" state that graduates will be "able communicators, perceptive problem solvers, lifelong learners, involved citizens, innovative producers, collaborative workers and individuals with a positive self-concept." With that in mind, committees of Carroll teachers and parents have established "outcomes" for each course and grade level. They have agreed, for example, that first-graders will recognize letters, words and sentences. They will be able to read and write. The way it works in practice is evident in Stephanie Baker's fourth-grade class at Charles Carroll Elementary in Union Mills. On this day, students must prove they understand what they were taught over the past four weeks about electricity. They must construct a simple electrical game. Either the contraption works, or it doesn't. "You meet the criteria, it's acceptable," teacher Stephanie Baker said as she looked over a collection of projects ranging from the very simple to the very ambitious. All of them had electrical circuits that worked, so students had met that "outcome." Outcomes-based education has been in use for at least two decades -- long before anyone started calling it by that name -- and is now practiced in some form in school districts in at least a dozen states. In the Baltimore area, all school systems have set up committees write course and unit outcomes, making sure they align with goals the state developed as part of its 3-year-old Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program. The new tests under consideration are an outgrowth of that program. In Carroll and Baltimore counties, the school boards have gone a step further. Each approved a set of exit outcomes in May. Baltimore County schools will try to develop pilot programs this school year, but Carroll County schools plan no changes in the curriculum until at least next fall. Carroll's neighbor to the west -- Frederick County -- has been following an outcomes approach for seven years, part of its "Effective Schools" program. In that time, Frederick went from being a "good" school system to one of the top three performers on statewide tests, said Julian Katz, research manager for Frederick schools. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of Frederick County students received marks of satisfactory or above on the state's current performance tests. That compares with between 25 percent to 34 percent statewide. Similarly, the number of Frederick County students taking advanced placement tests for college credit has doubled since 1986, and the dropout rate fell from 3.2 percent in 1988 to 1.2 percent in 1992, Mr. Katz said. "We worked to have high standards for all students, not just one group," said Kevin Castner, associate superintendent. Working together Parents see the approach working, said Debbie Bostian, president of the Frederick County Council of PTAs. "What they're looking for is to give them a better working knowledge to be able to do things when they get out of school, rather than just being book-smart," she said. Parents also have seen the benefits of teaching children to work together. "They can work with groups of people, which is certainly the way we are when we get out of school," Ms. Bostian said. "Maybe they can't cover as much material, but what they learn will be of a higher quality." Those supporting the use of an outcomes-based approach in the Baltimore area are convinced it will prepare their children for a complex future. "The best thing, I think, about outcomes-based education is every child will succeed," said M. Lynn Earp, a Westminster mother who is co-chairwoman of a new parent group that supports the concept. "We're not going to accept failure as readily, just assigning it an F," added North Carroll High School chemistry teacher John Lynam. "More teachers now will give the paper back to the student, challenge them to redo it, make it better." He believes that the increased effort and commitment from teachers can motivate students. Carroll County Superintendent R. Edward Shilling agrees. "I still believe we've got too many children going through the motions, smiling their way through school," he said. "You really ultimately will take away the choice of a student to sit through ninth-grade English and say it's OK to get a D." Letter grades can co-exist with outcomes. But letter grades alone do not indicate what students can do, said Lauren Resnick, director of the New Standards Project, a privately funded, Pittsburgh-based group working to raise national testing standards. She relates the story of a mother who was furious to learn that her son, who got A's and B's at his inner-city school, was barely able to read and write. "Parents want to know what a grade means," Dr. Resnick said. But the outcomes approach has increasingly generated controversy among those who see in it more than an attempt to make sure every child learns. They note that the language of outcomes is strikingly similar from state to state. They fear a national agenda to shape young minds. The opposition movement began with Peg Luksik of Johnstown, Pa., who ran in the Republican primary for governor and founded the Pennsylvania Parents Commission in 1987. That group in 1991 took on the fight against the 52 exit outcomes her state's Board of Education adopted this year. The group now helps organize opposition to out comes in communities throughout the nation. Last spring, a videotape of a speech by Mrs. Luksik, titled "Who Controls Our Children," started circulating among parents and churches in Carroll County. It helped spawn what is now the most organized and vocal outcomes opposition in Maryland. The group is known as Carroll County Citizens for Quality Education, and its leaders -- Mr. Bowen among them -- cite a variety of concerns about the outcomes approach. When an exit outcome on being "involved citizens" says students should appreciate a "multicultural" society, opponents worry that the definition could grow to include homosexuality. When an exit outcome on being perceptive problem solvers says students should be critical thinkers, they fear that may mean questioning values taught at home. And when students are teamed up to learn in groups, they fear it may diminish the importance of the individual and promote what they call socialistic thinking. Practical questions Beyond concerns about outcomes shaping the way children think, opponents raise more practical questions. "It sounds good if every kid is an active, engaged learner," Mrs. Luksik noted. "But every kid isn't." Mr. Bowen and other opponents also have challenged the schools to provide a cost for the new approach. School officials ++ throughout the area say it won't necessarily cost more, but rather that teacher and staff training will focus on outcomes. In Frederick County, the approach has not been costly. The average per-pupil cost there is $5,300, Mr. Castner said, compared with the state average of $5,800. If the state Board of Education does require students to pass a new series of performance-based tests beginning in 1996, local schools would be likely to make changes so that their students could pass the exams, said Joan Palmer, a deputy state superintendent involved in the program. That's exactly the purpose of the tests -- to make all schools across the state prove they are teaching the essentials to their students, and teaching them to apply what they learn, Dr. Palmer said.