Way back in 1976, when Simone Fajer was an eighth grader at Belair Junior High, she was urged to apply to Eleanor Roosevelt High, Prince George's County's elite high school.

Despite the urging of her teachers, she did not apply because she feared the competitive atmosphere of the school's special science, math and technical program.

"If it was now, I would have gone. I don't know if we girls were more self-conscious or what. When you're younger and the talent doesn't show, the boys are pushed more," said Fajer, whose younger brother attends Roosevelt.

Times have changed in Prince George's and throughout the nation.

In Prince George's, the brainy kid figuring second derivatives of log functions is almost as likely to be a girl as a boy. This year 46 percent of the county's calculus students are girls, as are 49 percent of the advanced algebra-trigonometry students and 46 percent of the trigonometry-analysis classes -- all upper-level math courses.

By comparison, in 1980 nearly twice as many boys as girls nationwide expected to complete five years of math before entering college, usually through the calculus level, according to data from the Educational Testing Service.

"I would say the (Prince George's schools) are among the better schools in the country, though they're not in the top 1 percent," said Laurie Brush, a Washington researcher working on a book on women and math. "They're showing an excellent trend toward equal participation."

In fact, Simone Fajer's calculus class at Bowie High School is dominated by girls, 16 to eight.

The argument over whether women are inferior to men in mathematical ability has raged in academic circles for years. A recent study by John Hopkins University researchers Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley concluded that "sex differences in achievement in and attitude toward mathemtatics results from superior male mathematical ability." Their findings did not settle the matter for many other researchers who feel that it may be impossible to isolate a sex-linked form of "mathematical reasoning ability" that the study tested.

But the girls in Larry Swindell's trigonometry and analysis class at Crossland High School seemed unaware of their importance in the drive for female equality in equations.

Michelle Katsakis, Cindy Bossier, and Nancy Staples, all of Camp Springs, only knew that they were not "girls who want to be secretaries." They said they needed the math because they plan to become, respectively, a doctor, a doctor and a nurse.

"It depends on what you want to do. I wanted to study medicine so I need the math," said Katsakis, who added that she was incredulous that anyone could believe boys are better students. "I think that's wrong. Girls are often more aware than guys are about their grades. They're more worried about their macho image," she added.

"I'd say overall that the girls are more serious. They're more attentive, more consistent in turning in their homework," said Swindell, who added that the has seen an increase in the number of girls taking advanced math over his 12 years of teaching.

He observed: "My guess might be that it is really happening -- what the women's movement has been hoping for: women seeking employment in technical fields."

County math supervisor Conrad Seeboth said he was glad he followed an impulse to take a head count of girls in math classes last January.

"It occurred to me as I was visiting the classrooms that 'hey, there are a lot of girls in these classes,'" said Seeboth, who was "very pleased" with the results showing county girls participating in advanced math classes at rates above the averages found in the most recent nationwide studies.

Seeboth had no explanation for the showing but suggested that excellent female role models -- half the calculus teachers in the county are women -- and Title IX of the 1972 Education Act, which requires equal educational opportunity for boys and girls, are contributing factors.

But researchers such as Lynn Fox of John Hopkins and Susan Chipman of the National Institute of Education agree that one of the biggest determinants of whether boys and girls take higher math in equal numbers is the role they see for math in their lives. Chipman points out that girls are more likely to say they need the math simply as a part of their overall education, while boys tend to give career reasons.

"Courses like calculus are elective, not required. When you ask girls why they didn't take it, some of the answers have to do with girls not perceiving they need it," said Fox.

Some of Simone Fajer's classmates in calculus agree.

"Several years ago it was the girls who didn't go (for science-related careers), but now the girls are turning toward science and computers because that's the way society is going," said Jill Daniels, a senior from Bowie who plans a career in management.

The girls, all of whom were identified as gifted students in tests taken in the seventh grade and were encouraged to pursue advanced subjects including math, also realized that their female teachers made an important difference.

"I've had only a few great teachers in this school, and most of them were women," said Sara Betz, also a senior.

Whether the sex of the teacher was important or not, the girls said the days of females fearing the technical and competitive world of advanced math and science were over.

In the four years since Fajer decided not to go to Eleanor Roosevelt, she remembers seeing a number of girls take up the challenge and go to the school, only to return to a regular high school because they felt uncomfortable. But last year, she knew of only one.

"She went and she came back," she said, adding, "nobody does that anymore."