More than one-third of Montgomery County's ninth graders last spring failed a statewide citizenship examination that tests national, state and local political knowledge, school officials said yesterday.

County educators yesterday blamed lack of preparation and, in some cases, difficult and ambiguous questions for the fact that only 62 percent of the students who took the exam passed. They also expressed dismay that black and Hispanic students continued to fare poorly compared to white and Asian students despite a countywide push to eliminate that gap.

Only 36 percent of the black students and 42 percent of the Hispanic students passed, while 67 percent of the whites and 63 percent of the Asians did.

"I would argue that most adults in the state wouldn't pass it," said Stephen Frankel, director of the school system's Department of Educational Accountability.

The test consisted of 45 factual multiple-choice questions in three areas: constitutional government, principles and responsibilities, and politics and political behavior.

Although disappointed, Montgomery educators were quick to note that the county's passing rate compared favorably with the statewide passing rate of 38 percent announced in December. Prince George's County school officials said their results will be released next week.

Montgomery educators predicted test scores would shoot up this spring when the exam becomes a graduation requirement. The test taken last spring was a trial run, but in order to graduate this year's ninth graders will have to pass the citizenship examination, in addition to similar statewide competency examinations in writing, mathematics and reading.

The examinations, part of what is known as Project BASIC, are included in a statewide effort to strengthen academic standards. To pass the test, a student had to receive a score of 68.9 percent -- answering 31 of the 45 questions correctly.

Montgomery educators differed yesterday on the degree of ambiguity of test questions, but agreed the test probably was more difficult than it first appears because of the specificity of the questions.

One question cited as being ambiguous says: The legislative branch of the federal government has the power to:

a. introduce bills to finance the government.

b. explain what laws mean.

c. set up political parties.

d. make treaties.

The state says the correct answer is (a), but some local educators have said (b) also could be a correct answer because when a law is written, the first paragraph explains what the law is.