Since 1955 nearly 6 million junior high and high school students nationwide have taken advanced-placement tests in core academic subjects such as history, English literature, history, physics and biology. These tests allow students to challenge themselves academically and, by dint of their achievement, master college-level material. If they score high enough on the tests, they receive college credit.

We already have high levels of enrollment in advanced-placement courses in the Montgomery County school system -- nearly 2.5 times the national average. But not everyone participates at the same level. Sixty percent of the county's Asian American students have taken advanced-placement courses. The figure is 49 percent for white students, but only 20 percent for African Americans and 18 percent for Hispanic students. These figures are unacceptable.

The ultimate answer to lower-achieving rates must come from the classroom, but we can do some things to provide more opportunity for every student. Maryland should:

Pay some or all of the exam fees for low-income students -- of whatever race. The average fee of $80 per exam can be a high hurdle for low-income families. Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina can afford to help with these fees, and so can Maryland.

Invest in advanced-placement "summer institutes" for junior and senior high school students to give them a head start.

Fund professional development of advanced-placement public school teachers -- just as California, West Virginia and other states have done.

Give schools and advanced-placement teachers financial incentives for every grade of three or higher (out of a possible four) earned by their students. A score of three or higher means that students receive college credit for the entry-level college course in that subject.

Pitch in to pay for advanced-placement class materials and equipment -- just as Oklahoma does.

Maryland is missing out on an opportunity that will pay off many times over for us in the future. It's time for us to provide this important advantage to our children.

-- Blair Ewing

-- Henry Heller

both Democrats, are, respectively, an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council and a Maryland State Delegate from District 19.