Maryland's high schools continue to graduate a substantial number of students who are unprepared for college-level courses in math, English and reading, according to a state survey released this week.

The findings gave Southern Maryland graduates a mixed report card: They were among the least likely to need help in math and English, but Charles and St. Mary's students in particular needed remedial work in reading more frequently that those from any other county.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission found that among public and private high school students who took college preparatory courses in high school, 25 percent needed remedial classes in math upon reaching college--a finding that the survey's author, Michael Keller, called sobering.

The number of students needing remedial help in math, English and reading has remained constant in the four years that the commission has done the annual survey.

"The message of this report is that students and parents need to be aware that there is a very great risk to a student who does not adequately prepare for the rigors of college," said Keller, the director of policy and analysis for the commission.

Students who took a college prep curriculum in high school outperformed those who did not in their first English and math courses in college, as well as in their first-year grade-point average, the study found.

"There were about 4,000 kids in this study who didn't get that message before going to college," Keller said.

The survey tracked the academic performance of 15,000 state high school students who enrolled at two- or four-year institutions of higher education in Maryland in 1997-98. Of the 11,000 who took college preparatory classes in high school, more than 15 percent still needed remedial courses in reading, and more than 10 percent needed help in English courses.

The Southern Maryland counties of Calvert and St. Mary's were bright spots.

St. Mary's County students were the least likely in the state to need help in math and English. Just 7 percent of the county's college prep students needed remedial courses in those two subjects.

In Calvert County, 13 percent of students who didn't take a college prep curriculum in high school needed remedial courses in English upon arrival at college. That figure was less than half of Prince George's County's showing, where 28 percent of non-college prep students needed help. Statewide, 22 percent of students who didn't take college-prep courses needed to take English refresher classes.

In reading, however, students from St. Mary's and Charles counties were the worst-prepared in the state. Twenty-five percent of college-prep students from St. Mary's and 31 percent from Charles needed remedial help in reading once they got to college, a greater portion than in Prince George's (19 percent), Anne Arundel (15 percent), Howard (13 percent) and Montgomery (12 percent).)

"We're solid in math and English, but we need to do better in the area of critical reading skills, and to do that we have to start earlier," said St. Mary's Schools Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson.

Middle school, she said, is the key. For the first time, every grade in the county's middle schools has its own reading teacher.

Charles County Schools Superintendent James E. Richmond said he is counting on his reading initiative, started three years ago, to better prepare students for college. Every elementary school in the county already has a reading teacher. Now the county is shifting the reading focus to middle school and high school students.

"For the past three years, we have focused the school system on reading," he said. "It's our number one priority. It's our long-run and short-run solution to getting kids where they need to be."

In the Washington metropolitan area, Montgomery County students had the lowest rates of remediation overall. Only 5 percent of Montgomery students who took a college prep curriculum needed remedial courses in English when they reached college.

Prince George's County students continued to lag behind the rest of the state. Students in Prince George's who followed a college prep curriculum in high school averaged a 2.1 GPA in their freshman year of college, the lowest in the state.

Along with students from Baltimore schools, Prince George's students "have consistently had among the highest remediation rates in math, English and reading," the report said.

The number of Prince George's students needing remedial math in college increased in each of the past two school years, wiping out gains made in 1995-96. Thirty percent of the county's college prep students needed help to do college-level course work, as did 40 percent of other students.

A spokesman for the Prince George's school system said officials would not comment until they had received a copy of the report.

The college performance of students from Anne Arundel and Howard schools has changed little over the past four years, consistently ranking about average among all counties.

In Anne Arundel, 22 percent of college prep students needed remedial help in math in college, compared with 23 percent statewide.

In Howard, 20 percent of non-college prep students needed help with college-level English. Statewide, the figure is 24 percent.

One of the most reliable predictors of college performance, Keller said, is gender.

The study found that female students attending state colleges earned an average GPA of 2.6 in their freshman year, compared with 2.4 for their male counterparts. Women "easily outpaced" men in their first math and English courses at college, according to the survey.