Electronic tax filing, which reduces chances for error and speeds up refunds, grew "astoundingly" this tax season, the Internal Revenue Service said.

The IRS, in its weekly tax season release of statistics, also reported that the average refund to taxpayers from January through May 8 was $856.16, down only 0.2 percent from $857.88 during the same period of 1987.IRS spokeswoman Johnell Hunter said the drop was "not significant" and said the statistics show the new tax laws and complicated W-4 forms were not as confusing as critics had said.

Tax returns filed from January through May 8 totaled 100.6 billion, up 3.5 percent from 97.2 billion during the same period of 1987, another indication the IRS and the American taxpayer were ready for the change, Hunter said.

"A lot of critics were saying . . . we could never get through the filing season," Hunter said. "I think we did a super job."

However, the number of people filing for four-month extensions through May 8 jumped 23.4 percent to 5.4 million from 4.4 million in the same period of 1987, Hunter said.

Electronic filing, an experimental program in 1987, is apparently taking off. So far this year 583,007 taxpayers had their return filed directly by computer from their preparer's office to the IRS, up from only 77,615 last year.

"The number of people filing electronically was astoundingly larger than we ever expected," she said.

"You'll get your refund quicker and it cuts down on error," Hunter said. "The transmittal by wire cuts out so many of the middlemen."

A refund can be wired back to the taxpayer or electronically deposited in certain bank accounts, Hunter said.