Figures released by Charles County school officials show that the difference in the Scholastic Assessment Test scores of African American and white male students increased this year.

Among the 56 black male high school seniors who took the exam during the 1998-1999 school year, the average combined math and verbal score was 838--down 36 points from the previous year, when 47 black male students took the test.

Scores for white male students also declined in Charles--down 29 points to an average of 1050 among the 166 who took the test.

That left a 212-point gap between the two groups of high school boys, compared with a 205-point gap the previous year.

"In order for us to succeed as a school system, we must close the gap between African American and white students in academic achievement," Superintendent James E. Richmond said.

All three Southern Maryland counties have formed task forces or committees to study the problem, which plagues schools nationwide. Richmond said a Minority Achievement Advisory Committee, along with his countywide reading initiative, should help improve test scores among minority students.

The average combined score for the entire county was down seven points this year. Parents and school officials look closely at SAT scores as an indicator of how well schools are performing.

There were some good signs for the school system. Female African American graduating seniors increased their verbal score from 416 in 1998 to 425 in 1999.

The 228 white female test-takers posted an overall score of 1022 this year, a two-point drop. Meanwhile, the overall score for the 79 black female students taking the exam this year increased by five points over results posted by the 58 who took the test in 1998.

Last year, the Minority Achievement Advisory Committee developed 10 recommendations for Charles schools, including hiring more minority teachers, offering diversity training to staff members and providing more enrichment opportunities for minority students, including SAT training.

Minnie Reynolds, director of minority achievement and multicultural education, said there are now more minority mentors at several schools.

"Our goal is that every student move forward, but we must be realistic. Some students need a little more enrichment to close the gap," she said. "We're pulling every plug to make this work."