From the dimly-lit hall of the D.C. Armory to the red-carpeted Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to the grassy field of Crampton House, students in billowing gowns stepped up last week to receive the nine-inch-square diplomas that symbolize both past achievement and an uncertain future.

The 4,616 graduates leaving Washington's 13 public high schools and five career centers in ceremonies last week and Monday form a mirror image of the city's ethnic and racial mix. They also mirror changing times, with fewer students planning to go to college and school officials blaming that fact on the anemic state of the economy and on cutbacks in aid to education.

Approximately 4,350 of this year's graduates are black and 120 are white. There are 121 foreign students from countries ranging from Argentina to Zaire.

Wilson High in upper Northwest had the most international of the graduating classes, with 35 countries represented.

Cardozo High in Shaw was the only high school in the city to graduate more boys than girls.

McKinley High School in Northeast (471 graduates) and Eastern High near RFK Stadium (525) are graduating more students than any other schools this year, but fewer of them are expected to go to college than ever before, officials at the schools say.

The percentage of students going to college ranged from highs of 87 percent at the Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, 80 percent at School Without Walls (an alternative school for outstanding students) and 75 percent at Wilson, Ballou in Anacostia and Coolidge in upper Northwest, to lows of 8 percent at Eastern and 20 percent at Spingarn in the Benning Road area of far Northeast.

The number of students expected to go to college dropped most sharply at Eastern, and at McKinley, which projects 57 percent of its graduating class will go to college. Last year, Eastern sent about 17 percent of its graduates to college and McKinley has sent as many 67 percent to college in recent years.

Principals at those schools say cutbacks in federal loans and the sagging economy has made it necessary for more students to go directly into the work world.

Like many of the graduates, tall, husky, Dimitri Butler of Eastern High has decided to postpone further education for a few years. Butler, who graduated Wednesday, said he wants to work a while to have "a place to stay and food to eat" for himself, his fiancee and his 19-month-old son.

This summer he will work two jobs, as a salesman at an office supply store during the day and a cashier at a Holiday Inn at night, he said, and he might enter the military to get benefits to pay for a college education.

Ballou graduate Kimberly Kellogg, who was enrolled in that school's prestigious math-science program, said she applied to a number of sources for scholarships but "it seems things are tight everywhere."

Kellogg said she would like to attend Howard University, but if she is not awarded some financial aid she will enroll in the University of the District of Columbia. There, her tuition will be only $182 a year compared to the $5,000 she says it would cost to attend Howard.

Two-hundred 16 of the graduates will enter the military -- slightly more than last year and including more girls, according to principals at the schools.

The city's five career-development high schools -- which train students for careers in auto mechanics, the industrial arts, day care, hotel and restaurant management, secretarial, health occupations, clerical work and hairdressing -- graduated 499 students on Wednesday. That was down from 519 graduates last year.

Frank Shields, who graduated from the Phelps Career Development Center, where he trained to be a bricklayer, said he decided to go to a vocational school because he thought "students coming out of high school would find it harder to get a job if they didn't have a trade." But Shields says he has been looking for a job in construction for over a month now without any luck.

"I guess because I'm an apprentice and just out of school they might prefer a journeyman who is more advanced," Shields said. He said that he will try to get into an apprenticeship program through the Bricklayers Union or Builders and Contractors Association that may eventually lead to permanent work, adding: "I am still determined to find a job somewhere."

In all, 2,589 girls and 2,027 boys are graduating. Nearly all the valedictorians this year are girls. Wilson has male and female covaledictorians.

Both Ballou's valedictorian, Rhonda Washington, and the school's salutatorian, Lisa Howard, were accepted by Harvard University, the school's principal said, but both girls said they turned Harvard down to attend schools which offered them more financial aid. Washington will go to Xavier University in New Orleans and Howard will go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The number of seniors planning to attend college increased at two schools, Spingarn and Dunbar, which both held graduations on Thursday. Thomas Harper, Dunbar's principal, said students seem to be more concerned than in the past about getting an education that will lead to a job.

Nowhere is that fact better reflected than at Ellington, which graduated the smallest class in the city on Thursday evening. Although about 87 percent of Ellington's 80 graduates will go to college, principal Maurice Eldridge says only 57 percent will major in one of the arts.

"Kids are not so starry-eyed as they were years ago" about becoming famous performers, he said. "I have a lot of dedicated musicians who want to major in computers."