During a recent sociology class, Montgomery County high school students were asked to rank their peers according to status. Athletes and cheerleaders, as usual, came in high.

But so did a new group on campus, a group whose surge in popularity in the 1980s reflects a marked shift in student attitudes, social mores and political concerns.

The group: the Naval Junior ROTC, the Navy's high school branch of the armed services.

"During the hippie-yippie period, the freaks, or druggies as we called them, were held in fairly high esteem. A group like the JROTC probably could not have existed then," says Nathan Pearson, principal of Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, where the informal survey was conducted. "That's just not true anymore. These more institutionalized and structured programs like the JROTC seem to be the status symbols."

All over the Washington area, thousands of public high school students are clamoring to join the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, a scaled-down version of military recruitment camp in which students wear uniforms twice a week, address each other as Miss or Mister and meet daily for an hour of academic instruction and military drilling.

Nationwide, there are 196,593 high school students enrolled in JROTC. Demand is so high that all four military branches -- Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- are unable to provide all the programs that high schools want. There are 25 high schools in the Washington area with 4,263 students in JROTC programs, but no new programs can be started because congressional funding limits have been reached. If a school wants to start a new program, it must wait until another school somewhere in the nation gives one up.

The student rage over JROTC attracts a diverse group, including some students who 10 years ago might have been marching in protest rather than in step. Senior class presidents, cheerleaders, majorettes and football players have enrolled. The program's popularity has even led students to coin the newest term in the high school lexicon: At Seneca Valley, says junior Mike Rasche, sporting a Lacoste sports shirt, "you are either a 'high schoolie' or a cadet."

"We could put a program in every school if we could get it," reports Brian Porter, spokesman for the Prince George's County schools where the largest number of students in the region -- 2,300 -- are enrolled in JROTC. In one Prince George's school, Central High, 24 percent of the students take part in JROTC.

In the District, the number of students in JROTC has doubled since 1975, from 706 that year to 1,420 today. In Montgomery County, where the first programs began last year, there are already 461 members. Two more Montgomery schools, in addition to the existing four, are eager to start their own JROTC programs.

In Arlington, where Air Force officials started an experimental program at the Arlington Career Center this year, 92 students are bused daily for a two-hour program to one central location. Although there are no JROTCs in Alexandria or Fairfax, the former sentiment against the program seems to be shifting. Fairfax officials report that for the first time since 1974, when a proposed JROTC program caused an uproar in the county, one of their high schools is again considering JROTC.

"Vietnam has passed. We don't see as much antiestablishment or antimilitary anymore," says Bobby Mullis, principal of Northwood High School in Silver Spring. Nearly 10 percent of Northwood's students take part in the school's Air Force program, the only Air Force JROTC in the county. The other three programs are affiliated with the Navy.

"Kids today are more patriotic," Mullis continues. "They want to go into government services. Also, these kids realize that the economy is bad and that a job in the military might not be so bad."

Many JROTC students say they want to enroll in college ROTC, and later join the military. But what is missing among these students who dress in military uniforms, carry practice rifles and undergo rigorous marching drills, is much talk of politics or war. The possibility of a nuclear holocaust is absent from most discussions and, although the students study the history of war, they seldom seem to think about their own roles in future conflicts. These students do not think of their military training as a path to the battlefield; they see it as a way to fly jets or study oceanography.

These are the youth of an age far removed from Vietnam and draft cards and brothers dying in Asian jungles. For many of them, war is a sterile concept defined primarily by military registration, news accounts of MX missiles, and battle scenes in movies.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be in the military," says Stacy Jensen, 16, a Northwood junior. "But I don't want to fight. I want to fly."

The popularity of JROTC, then, seems not be to founded on students' political concerns but rather on the program's opportunity for discipline and structure in an otherwise frenetic and fragmented society. In an era when individual progress seems so important, the JROTC stresses group activity and offers a missing sense of community. Again and again in interviews, students emphasize the importance of belonging to and representing their squadron or their platoon.

For some students, involvement becomes so intense, they begin to perceive themselves as separate from nonmilitary people, including family members. They identify themselves first as members of JROTC.

"My parents are civilians and they don't really understand why I love it," says senior Kevin Hanrahan, squadron leader at Northwood. "Sometimes, they think I'm a little too military. But they know this gives me a chance to develop my leadership potential and be around the sort of people I like."

On campus, the program's discipline is enforced in different ways, and cadets at some schools are expected to adhere to higher standards of conduct than their nonmilitary peers. If a uniform is not worn properly, a cadet soon learns that he or she is hurting the reputation of the platoon. If a cadet receives detention in a nonmilitary class, the teacher may remind the student that such behavior is not worthy of the JROTC. Older cadets often mete out penalties for derelict underlings and supervise the punishment.

On a recent day at Northwood, for example, a member of the program's color guard was wearing taps on the sides of his shoes to intensify the clicking sound when he slapped his feet together during drills. He had been warned earlier to remove them.

"What are you doing with those still on?" Hanrahan, the squadron leader, yelled from across the room.

The infraction was recorded on a mimeographed pad that cadet officers routinely carry in their pockets and reported to the cadet's flight commander (also a student).

On the same afternoon, across the county at Seneca Valley, a cadet who had been noisy in class marched for 35 minutes on a deserted basketball court, toting a practice rifle on his shoulder. He was escorted by a senior who called out orders throughout the march.

"The discipline is hard at first, but you learn it and you begin to love it," says Kelly Moran, a Seneca Valley junior who also is a majorette and manager of the tennis team, and who wants to be an oceanographer in the Navy. "People don't treat you like a little kid here."

Three times a week, students listen to lectures on military history and science taught by retired military officers. Teaching costs are split between the school and the military branch; the military also pays for all uniforms, textbooks and other curriculum aids.

On the other two days each week, cadets participate in what is called "leadership training," a term used constantly by students and instructors to describe marching drills and standard checks of uniforms and haircuts. Boys must keep their hair above the collar at all times and girls are required to pin their hair up on uniform days. A loose tie or unbuttoned jacket can result in after-school marching.

"We're not martinets," says Cmdr. Phillip Weist, a full-time instructor at Seneca Valley. "But we have to insist on certain things. The kids need to know the rules and what it takes to play this game called life."