As high school students and parents start thinking about what courses to take next year, I want to warn them about a danger they may not realize exists that could cost them time, money and lost opportunities in the future.

The danger has to do with the fact that the courses required by Montgomery County high schools for graduation do not match the skills and knowledge needed to do college-level work. As a result, graduates of Montgomery County get stuck every year in remedial--or, as they are called, "non-credit"--courses in Montgomery College and colleges across the state.

One of the biggest problems students have centers on math. Montgomery County and the state require four high school credits of math, specifying only that they include Algebra I and geometry. But in order to do college-level work, students really should have mastered most of the material taught in Algebra II.

This lack of a match between curriculums, says Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland, "is one of the great divides between us and them," meaning between higher-education folk and secondary educators. "College faculty know that Algebra II is necessary to be able to do college math."

Langenberg is part of a national group that includes several university chancellors and state school superintendents, including Maryland's Nancy S. Grasmick, who have pledged to do something about making sure high school students are ready to do college-level work. Their call, "With Renewed Hope and Determination," is one piece of a larger report recently issued by the education think tank Education Trust (Web site: www.edtrust.org), which documents the mismatch between high school graduation requirements and the requirements of colleges.

The report is called "Ticket to Nowhere"--a reference to the high school diploma. The report even cites Montgomery County as an example of the widespread nature of the problem of recent high school graduates needing remediation--not the kind of publicity county schools like to get.

According to the state's latest figures, 16 percent of Montgomery students who take what is called the core curriculum--the college preparatory curriculum--and go on to Maryland public colleges need remedial math courses. As for students who take the non-core curriculum and then go to Maryland colleges, 31 percent need remedial work.

The situation for those who go to Montgomery College is even more startling: Remediation is needed for 31 percent of core curriculum students and 43 percent of non-core curriculum students. Let me repeat that--31 percent of the students going to Montgomery College who took the college preparatory curriculum need remediation in math.

In English, the situation is a bit better though still nothing to brag about. Of the students going to Maryland public schools, 5 percent of those who took the core curriculum need remediation; 12 percent of the non-core students need it.

Keep in mind, these are students who go directly from high school to college, not people returning to college after a long hiatus who might need to brush up on their skills for that reason.

Some Montgomery high schools are giving students a better chance to see where they stand: The schools are offering the Accuplacer exam to juniors and seniors. The Accuplacer is given by Montgomery College and many other schools, including four-year colleges, to determine whether students are ready for college-level work. Taking it in high school is a good opportunity for students to gauge where they are so they can get any help they need before they graduate. If your high school doesn't offer the Accuplacer, ask your guidance counselor and principal if they can arrange it.

Here's another hidden danger students should know about. Calculators are not allowed for the Accuplacer. You need to know those pesky math facts, so if you've been avoiding them by using a calculator, there's no time like now to do a bit of review. Flashcards are remarkably effective and can be studied on bus rides to and from school.

Eventually the problem of conflicting standards between high schools and higher education will be resolved because Grasmick and Langenberg have agreed to align high school graduation standards with University of Maryland entrance and placement standards.

"It's got to happen," Langenberg says. But that will take another few years to be fully in place. Students who are in high school now should avoid getting caught in the middle by making sure they take a college preparatory curriculum all four years of high school. Unfortunately, that still doesn't guarantee that they won't need remedial classes--as seen in the statistics above--but it means they might need fewer of them.

High school students and their parents should realize that even in Montgomery County, many high schools haven't caught up with the fact that all their students need to be prepared for college. That's right, I said all. Or close enough. Nationally, something on the order of 80 percent of all high school graduates are enrolled in college within two years of graduation (the last definite figures we have are that 72 percent of 1992 graduates were enrolled within two years, but we're pretty sure that percentage has grown). Of those 20 percent remaining, many show up at college after working for years in jobs that do not pay enough to support a family, but again we don't have definitive figures on them.

In Montgomery County, about 85 percent of all seniors say they plan to go to college right after high school--most to four-year colleges, the rest to two-year colleges or to a combination of school and work.

And I am convinced that most of the other 15 percent are headed to college as well. They just don't know it yet. Even if students go into the military and stay there, they are probably ending up in college. It is a little-known fact that the Community College of the Air Force is one of the largest degree-granting institutions in the country. One of the only ways to get out of needing to go to college is to go to prison for a very long time, and I don't advise that as a life ambition.

The fact is, the number of jobs paying a living wage that do not require post-secondary education is dwindling fast. Even those jobs that used to be possible to get and hold without college now require college-level training. Auto repair, for example, requires sophisticated knowledge of computers and state-of-the-art technology, and Montgomery College offers a two-year program in the field. Montgomery College also offers a two-year program in another industry that once didn't require college-level work--construction.

So, students, don't let guidance counselors tell you you don't need Algebra II. You do. Regular readers of the column know that I advise students to aim for pre-calculus or, even better, calculus. But you must have Algebra II. You can take it now or later, but if you wait until later you'll have to pay $300 for every remedial course you need and delay your college degree to boot.

A Valuable Lesson

Dear Homeroom:

In response to your request to hear about "inspired lessons presented by wonderful teachers" (Dec. 9):

Michelle Bruthers teaches third grade at Twinbrook Elementary School in Rockville. My son Kevin is in her class and recently brought home a "realistic fiction" book report assignment. He had to select a book to read, write a structured review of it (describing main character and setting, summarizing the main conflict and its resolution, and stating and justifying an opinion of the book), create a poster advertising the book and prepare an oral report about it.

Ms. Bruthers gave the students a couple of weeks for this project, along with advice on planning their time. Best of all, she told the parents and students in writing what the objectives of the assignment were and how the work would be evaluated. My credibility in giving my son feedback on practice speeches was much higher as a result ("It says right here you need to be able to explain your ad and stand without fidgeting, so let's try again").

This reminder of the value of specifying one's standards also inspired me in my own work as a teacher. It is easy to lapse into telling students a topic and deadline for a paper or presentation, letting them guess what you really want and then criticizing the results. Clearly communicating our expectations instead works for third-graders, graduate students and probably every other classroom as well. Thanks for the lesson, Ms. Bruthers!

Dave Haaga,

Professor of psychology,

American University

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