Jack Suruda, a college instructor of English, has just tested a batch of his fall students. All but a handful own a 1999-model diploma from a Cadillac school system -- Montgomery County's -- and traditionally Suruda launches each semester by plumbing abilities.

Scattered on a table are the students' answer cards to a multiple-choice challenge. Suruda picks up each card, scans and scribbles, tabulating depth of vocabulary and grasp of written passages. History tells him what's likely to come next -- he's been at Montgomery College 22 years -- but his distress is apparent nonetheless as the harsh numbers add up.

"Whoa," he says to one result.

"Phew," he says to another.

"Geez," he says to a third.

Not all 22 class members took the entire test, but of the 17 who did, none demonstrated skills commensurate with 12th grade. Most of these college students can do no more than seventh-grade work, some no more than fifth-grade.

The comma? An alien form, Suruda says. Spelling? They offer him "listing" for "listening" and "memeries" for "memories." They have trouble organizing thoughts on paper; they compose sentences of rudimentary structure, and they struggle with grammar, he says.

So they have commenced college life, not with dreamy explorations of new intellectual heights, but by visiting basic lessons no one made them master before passing them on to the future, not even Montgomery County's legendary public school system.

Tested and found wanting by Montgomery College, the students have been told that to ensure their own success, they must begin the pursuit of their college degree in Room 252 of the Humanities Building on the college's Germantown campus, in Suruda's.

"Today," he announces on day two of the fall semester, "we're starting with these units on subjects and verbs."

"It's like in elementary school, like in language arts, like in fourth grade," Jennifer Oliphant, 19, a graduate of Gaithersburg's Watkins Mill High School, says of Suruda's class. But, she says, "I'm kind of glad, because I really need it."

Sean Tobin, 18, who attended Quince Orchard in Gaithersburg, got a GED and now must spend time with Suruda, says he was "mad at first," but now believes that had he been put in a college-level course, "I wouldn't have known anything."

Suruda's is one of 35 entry-level remedial English courses listed in Montgomery College's fall schedule -- and one of thousands of remedial courses at colleges nationwide, involving tens of thousands of students, new and returning. Most are at community colleges like Montgomery, whose schedule also included 25 entry-level remedial reading courses and 58 remedial math courses, although the college prefers the term "developmental."

Such courses have become a troubling barometer of how well public school systems are priming students for higher education, a destination that might have been a nice option in times past but is virtually a necessity in a high-tech world.

Given that nearly half the area public high school teachers surveyed by The Washington Post in the spring said a diploma from their school was no guarantee that a student knew the basics, and a third felt social promotions were at least "fairly common," it's not surprising that many graduates wind up needing help in college. Still, there are those who wonder whether colleges should have to fix the problem.

"Academicians, trustees, legislators and average citizens have questioned the wisdom of providing a service in college that supposedly was paid for in elementary and secondary school," the Maryland Higher Education Commission said in a 1996 study of remedial education in the state. "These voices have become more frequent in a period in which higher education has to compete with other state priorities for limited resources."

Maryland public colleges spent $17.6 million on remediation in fiscal 1995, the most recent total available. Virginia officials estimate remedial courses cost $40 million. The University of the District of Columbia estimates it spends about 5 percent of its budget, $1.2 million, on such courses.

Most of the costs must be picked up by taxpayers, because tuition covers only about two-fifths of instructional costs, according to Mark C. Hampton, director of institutional research for Virginia's State Council of Higher Education. That burden even led to an unsuccessful legislative attempt in Florida to require public schools "to reimburse colleges for the cost of remedial courses for their graduates," the Maryland Higher Education Commission report noted.

New Maryland figures released Tuesday show that of its 1997 high school graduates who enrolled in a Maryland college, 27 percent -- 4,240 -- needed remedial math. Fifteen percent had to take remedial English, and 17 percent remedial reading. (Some students take more than one course.)

In Virginia, 25 percent of the 1997 public high school graduates needed at least one remedial course when they got to a state-supported college in the commonwealth. The University of the District of Columbia says "less than 10 percent" of its 5,300 students are in classes specifically designated as remedial.

That's not an entirely distressing portrait of college reality. Thousands of remedial students -- more than half in Virginia, for example -- are adults seeking to improve minds and resumes after a hiatus from formal learning and wanting to brush up on rusty skills. For others, English is not their native language, and, understandably, they need help.

What is controversial is remediation for non-immigrants fresh out of high school. Cliff Adelman, a senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, says many factors -- such as behavior and family life -- can explain why a student isn't ready for college. But, Adelman says, don't let school systems "off the hook."

"If the school systems can't prepare them for some sort of post-secondary education . . . then they are not doing justice by their students," Adelman says. "The family has every right, and their states have every right, to go out and hang them."

Sharon Teuben-Rowe, an assistant professor at Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus, says incoming students are often "shocked" when told they must take remedial classes like hers. They think they can read. And they can, she says. What bedevils them is interpreting what they read. They'll often miss nuance, humor or sarcasm.

If they read a passage about violence in the schools and are asked what the author's intent was, they'll reply, "He's telling us about violence in the schools," Teuben-Rowe says.

When it comes to math, Susan King says, "I'll tell you what they have trouble with: fractions, word problems, percents. Which are basic topics." King, who teaches "pre-algebra" at the Rockville campus, says that if asked to add fractions -- 1/4 and 1/2, say -- they might add numerators and denominators, coming up with 2/6, instead of the correct 3/4.

With perhaps surprising candor, many students blame themselves for their shortcomings. They didn't take school seriously, they say, and did no more than the minimum.

"I didn't really do anything in high school," says Eric Hickerson, 18, a graduate of Quince Orchard and now a member of Suruda's class. "I wouldn't be in a class like this if I'd paid attention. I partied too much."

Says Suruda: "They're humble. They're not really resentful. They say, `I really need you. You have to be patient with me, Mr. Suruda.' "

A big, expressive man of 60 who crackles with enthusiasm after 34 years of teaching, Suruda doesn't dwell on why or how his students got to this point. He merely seeks to help them now. Indeed, many educators say remedial classes are a sign of something good: Students haven't given up. At a direct cost to themselves in the form of tuition, they are reaching higher, having perhaps recognized belatedly the value of college.

"A lot of them will say, `This is the first time I've understood math,' " King says, and they thank her. "I tell them, `It's not me; it's you, because you are ready to do it now. You weren't in high school.' "

In some ways, that makes teaching a remedial course easier than teaching a high school level course. Suruda, in fact, sympathizes with the task facing high school teachers: too many students, too many of them lacking motivation.

But for all the willingness of students to blame themselves for being in remedial classes, "it's our fault, too," says Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's superintendent of schools.

Once upon a time, high schools weren't geared toward preparing every student for college. Many could graduate to a factory job and be fine. But, Grasmick says, "those jobs are absolutely disappearing in the 21st century."

Aware of that, many students who might have been content to stop after a high school diploma are heading for college -- only to find they aren't ready. It's as if course requirements and grading standards in high schools haven't been retooled to meet the times by making it impossible to coast to graduation with D grades or simple course loads.

But now Virginia and Maryland are raising the graduation bar, implementing tough new tests designed to find students with problems and provide them help on the assumption that all students need to emerge ready for some form of post-secondary education.

In addition, Mary Helen Smith, associate superintendent for instruction and program development in Montgomery County, says "a dialogue is about to begin" in her school system about what defines "successful completion of a course." Smith, who says low grade-level abilities of county graduates at Montgomery College are "not good at all," also notes that her system now has "a formalized partnership" with Montgomery College to make transitions seamless.

"I'm the Pollyanna here," Grasmick says, "but if we can achieve our purpose with these high school assessments . . . if we can literally end social promotion, if we can provide for the support systems . . . if all that comes together, you would hope there would be no student entering college who requires remedial education."