More than half of Prince George's County's ninth graders failed a writing test last spring that is required for graduation from high school, showing slight improvement over the previous year but still falling behind Maryland as a whole.

School officials reported yesterday that more than 52 percent of the county's ninth graders failed, including 59 percent of the black students, 41 percent of the white students, 54 percent of Hispanic students, and 38.9 percent of Asian students. Statewide, 46 percent of all students did not pass the test, one of four required for graduation.

In Montgomery County, 24 percent of white students and 40 percent of black students failed the test.

"I was happy where I saw improvement . . . but generally, not happy about the overall performance," Prince George's School Superintendent John A. Murphy said of his students' scores. "It shows we have a long way to go."

The Maryland Functional Writing Test was given on an official basis for the first time in 1984, when the failure rate in Prince George's was just over 54 percent. Students also must pass exams in reading, citizenship and math.

The tests have been phased in during the last several years as part of a state and national implementation of education reforms.

For the writing test, students were asked to write two essays: a letter to a teacher telling about the first time they did something on their own and a description of making a difficult decision.

The tests were then graded, by independent readers in Atlanta, for content, organization, sentence formation, spelling, grammar and punctuation.

In Prince George's, performance varied dramatically among schools.

At Surrattsville High School, for example, only 18.7 percent of the ninth graders failed the test, an improvement of more than 15 percentage points from the previous spring. And at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a magnet school for academically gifted students, 22.6 percent failed.

At the low end were Suitland High School, with a failure rate of 72 percent, and Fairmont Heights High School, where about 70 percent failed.

"We don't believe that our kids can't write," said school system spokesman Brian J. Porter. "It's just that they're not taking the test seriously enough and performing well . . . . We're kind of a multiple-choice society and this demands a lot of critical thinking, and a solo performance."

The test was administered in April to 8,862 ninth graders in Prince George's and 4,339 10th graders. Among the 10th graders, who were retaking the test after flunking the previous spring, the failure rate was 55.4.

This is the first year that county school officials have released a racial breakdown of the writing exam's failure rate. In previous standardized tests, black students -- who made up 57 percent of the entire student enrollment in Prince George's last year -- scored more than 20 points behind white classmates.

Louis F. Waynant, assistant superintendent for instruction, said the results of the writing exam showed that students were able to generate ideas, but needed more work on revising, editing and rewriting their essays.

Murphy cited the need to focus on writing in the middle schools as well as the high schools. "This is a cumulative process over the years," he said.

Surrattsville English coordinator John Brown said his students had performed well in part because the school incorporates writing in every discipline.