At a time when Maryland high schools are working to better prepare their students for life beyond 12th grade, an annual report on student performance indicates there is much work to be done.

The latest Student Outcome and Achievement Report, released last month by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, reinforces past studies that have shown that students taking the traditional "core," or college preparatory, course load in high school aren't necessarily prepared for college-level work.

Among the students from Maryland public schools who entered a state college or university during the 2000-01 school year, 27 percent had to take remedial math, 16 percent had to take remedial reading and 15 percent had to take remedial English, the report said.

Their peers who didn't take the core high school classes -- at least four years of English, three each of math and social science or history and two each of natural science and foreign language -- fared worse.

Thirty-eight percent of those students needed help in math during the first year of college, and 25 percent had to take remedial English and reading, according to the report.

The numbers translate into the state's universities, and particularly its community colleges, spending quite a bit of time bringing first-year students up to speed.

"You have to take them where they're at," said Tony Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. "We have to get them up to a college level. It's tough, especially to get them to graduate."

More than 90 percent of the students needing remediation enroll in community colleges, said Michael J. Keller, author of the Student Outcome and Achievement Report. From 1995 to 2000, between 49 percent and 56 percent of the less-prepared students who attended a community college needed remedial help in math, the study found.

Students at four-year colleges were far less likely to require assistance in math, reading and English. Yet administrators at this level have seen a slight increase in the amount of remedial courses they must provide, school experts said.

Keller said these statistics come as no surprise, having remained fairly consistent since the commission began publishing the reports in 1993 to provide the state's public school districts with feedback on the academic success of their graduates.

But Keller and community college officials worry that their message about the importance of high school classes isn't sticking.

More graduates of high schools in Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- the state's largest school districts -- needed remedial math in college in 2000 than their counterparts did five years before.

In Prince George's, the students who took core high school classes but still needed extra math help in college rose steadily during the report's five-year period, increasing to 38 percent in 2000 from 24 percent in 1995.

Thirty-five percent of students who didn't follow the core curriculum in Montgomery required assistance in math when they entered college in 2000. That number was down from the 41 percent the year before but was up from the 26 percent in the 1995 freshman class.

Meanwhile, numbers from Southern Maryland schools have stayed nearly the same. Ten percent of students who took core high school classes needed remedial help in college math, compared with 17 percent who didn't participate in the core curriculum.

"The high percentage of students who continue to be in that non-core category is a concern," said Keller, who serves as director of policy analysis and research for the Higher Education Commission. The 12-member state body started in 1988 is charged with maintaining a plan to coordinate and develop the growth of postsecondary education.

"Students give themselves an academic booster shot when they take courses that relate to college success and when they apply themselves to their studies," Keller said.

The study's good news, said Maryland Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard, is that most of the students who do well in the more rigorous classes offered by their high schools arrive at college prepared.

He attributes increases in the need for remediation to the broader pool of students now seeking higher education. In a number of cases, those students are the first generation in their families to attend college, Reinhard said.

"When you have over 50 percent of your kids going into higher education, there are some chances that some of them are going to need some help at the beginning of college," he said. "That's not a bad thing."

Black students continue to need more remedial assistance in math, English and reading than do their white or Asian peers. Fifty-six percent of black students who didn't take core classes needed extra help in math, compared with 20 percent of Asian students and 31 percent of white students.

Remediation in English was required by 45 percent of black students who didn't take core classes, 18 percent of Asian students and 15 percent of white students, the report said.

Those numbers could go down if the state's new tests, part of the Maryland School Assessment program, prompt all students to take harder courses, Keller said.

But Kinkel said it is time for students who aspire to community college to realize that high school preparation is just as important for them as those going to universities.

He would like to see future legislation requiring all students to take a math course during their senior year. It's understandable for older students returning to school to have difficulty with math entrance exams, he said, but 18-year-olds who have just graduated from high school have little excuse to need so much remediation.

"We've got a serious problem there," he said.