Universities in the District of Columbia received generally low marks in a massive evaluation of graduate programs conducted by the National Academy of Sciences.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the University of Maryland at College Park rated reasonably well or better in the survey, published in five volumes since last fall. But graduate programs at the five major universities in Washington--American, Catholic, George Washington, Georgetown, and Howard--all were rated mediocre or worse.

The evaluation of research and doctoral programs covers 32 fields and was based on ratings by more than 5,000 faculty members in 228 universities. To be included in the survey, a graduate program had to produce a minimum number of PhD recipients.

According to a comprehensive new analysis of the results, the University of California at Berkeley has the highest rank overall, placing in the top 10 in 30 fields and in the top five in 15 of them.

Berkeley held the same position, based on the reputation of its faculty, in 1970, the last time a similar study was made. In the new evaluation, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale come next in the ratings, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, and the University of Chicago.

Among the five D.C. universities, only one program in one college-- philosophy at Catholic University--was ranked in the top half of the universities rated in its field. The program placed 38th out of 77 philosophy programs evaluated.

Catholic University had enough PhD recipients to have 17 of its programs included in the survey. Ten of them wound up in the bottom 10 percent for their fields.

At Howard University five of the seven programs evaluated were in the bottom 10 percent. At American University, five out of eight doctoral programs rated that low.

Even though its undergraduate programs are highly competitive, with Scholastic Aptitude Test scores averaging over 600 points, Georgetown University had only two graduate programs--microbiology and physiology--in the top 60 percent for their fields.

Most of its other programs rated were in the bottom third or bottom quarter.

George Washington University, the District's second most competitive college in undergraduate admissions, was comparable to Georgetown in its graduate programs. Most of its eight rated fields were in the bottom third or quarter, though GW's most highly ranked graduate program--statistics--just missed being in the top half, placing 33 out of 63 universities evaluated.

"There's a long history to the situation of Washington's universities," said David Riesman, a sociologist at Harvard and expert in higher education. "George Washington wanted to create a national university there, but he wasn't able to. There's no great industrial wealth and no state support, which has helped create great universities elsewhere."

Riesman suggested that the standing of Washington's universities may also be hurt because "there may be too many of them competing with each other."

The Washington area has a large number of intellectual centers, Riesman added, but they are not affiliated with universities. These include the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Institution, and the National Institutes of Health, he said, as well as the research and analysis branches of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

Officials at the local universities noted that the ratings do not consider the quality of undergraduate programs or of law and other professional schools. Several said they have strong graduate programs in fields not included in the survey: foreign service at Georgetown, theater at Catholic, African studies at Howard.

"We don't have the size or the endowment to compete with a place like MIT," said Richard B. Schwartz, dean of the graduate school at Georgetown. "Instead, I think we have built very good programs in a few specific areas--Arab studies, bioethics, applied linguistics. But that's not what the ratings are looking for."

Edward Hawthorne, the graduate dean at Howard, noted that most of his university's graduate programs started within the past decade under President James Cheek. "I think we made tremendous strides," Hawthorne said, "but we have a long way to go. It's very difficult starting off and getting the resources we need."

Riesman said that in the past few years American University President Richard Berendzen has "made a real push" to improve his school, but Riesman added, "It takes a while for the image to change."

In the new evaluations, more programs at the University of Virginia are rated as having made major gains over the past five years than at any other university in the country. Some UVA humanities programs are among the nation's very best, ranking third in English, fifth in French, and ninth in German.

The school scores much lower in science and engineering, but at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the state university that specializes in that area, these programs rate moderately high.

Over the past five years, the survey says, the University of Maryland has made strong gains in economics, English, and sociology. Its top fields, all just inside the top 20 percent nationwide, are electrical engineering, physics, mathematics, and economics.

Two other fields at Maryland--computer sciences and art history--also rank among the top 10 for public universities, a goal that President John Toll has repeatedly set. According to a tabulation by the University of Maryland's institutional research office, Maryland now ranks 26th in average faculty quality out of 137 public universities in the evaluations. Among schools with more than 10 programs rated it ranks 20th.

The new survey shows that Johns Hopkins University remains strong, placing in the top 10 schools nationwide in English, history, and art history, and in the top third or quarter of all universities in most other fields.

Besides the reputational ratings, the evaluation reports provide information on 14 other topics, including program size, funding, publications, and employment of graduates. The project was sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Council on Education, and the Social Science Research Council, as well as the National Academy of Sciences.

Michael Pelczar, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said his group opposed the study, fearing it would be too subjective and misleading. He said there is a "halo" effect that inflates the rating of weak departments in universities with traditionally strong reputations. He said the survey also favors large universities and makes it difficult for small new programs in obscure parts of the country to get the credit they deserve.

"Of course, there are some flaws," Riesman said, but he added these do not outweigh the value of the ratings in acknowledging academic quality and promoting it.

In the 1970 study, directed by Kenneth Roose and Charles Anderson, specific rankings were given only to the top 20 to 30 schools in each field. Johns Hopkins was ranked in 23 fields, UVA in four, and Maryland in two. None of the universities in Washington was ranked.

Because of criticism, the new reports, unlike the 1970 study, give no numerical rankings. They do present average scores, however, which can be used to make such comparisons.