More than 97 percent of the school principals graded in the first year of Fairfax County's new evaluation program were rated as at least satisfactory and none was considered bad enough to be fired, leading some to wonder whether the new system is tough enough.

Likewise, in parallel pilot tests of similar systems, 97 percent of the assistant principals and other school-based administrators evaluated were found good or better and 100 percent of central office educators were at least satisfactory.

The new evaluations, conducted by the county's four area superintendents, are part of Superintendent Robert R. Spillane's drive to "professionalize" education in the area's largest school district, were intended to be more rigorous than previous evaluations.

However, the latest results provide ammunition for critics in the teachers unions and School Board who maintain that the new system is as undemanding and rife with favoritism as its predecessor. While more than 400 teachers have been ousted from the classroom under tougher evaluations, principals continue to benefit from friendships with the area superintendents who judge them, according to critics.

"It's obvious that they just aren't going to do as rigorous a job with principals as they did with teachers," said Walter J. Mika Jr., president of the 6,800-member Fairfax Education Association.

Administration officials dismiss such criticism as partisan shots to be expected from union leaders.

"I'm not bothered at all," said Spillane. "It's a political thing the teachers can use."

Spillane's top aides said the process for hiring principals is so tough to begin with that they weren't surprised by the good evaluations. However, they conceded that the pilot programs for assistants and other administrators need more work.

With the advent of teacher merit pay, the role of principals has changed dramatically in recent years, with more time devoted to classroom instruction and less to faulty boilers and late buses.

The School Board approved Spillane's revamped principal evaluations last year after all 32 principals judged during the pilot received good or excellent ratings. However, the board tabled Spillane's proposal to award merit bonuses to the best, as is done for teachers.

This spring, 83 of the county's 182 principals were evaluated and 26, or 31.3 percent, were awarded the highest rating, "exceeds standards," while 55 (66.3 percent) received the second highest, "meets standards."

Two principals (2.4 percent) were declared "below standards," meaning their pay will be frozen and they will have one year to improve or be removed. None got the lowest rating, "ineffective," which would result in dismissal or reassignment.

Assistant Superintendent Edward W. Carr, who oversees personnel, said the numbers do not surprise him because principals are selected from "the cream of the crop" of the teaching corps.

"The principals aren't sucked off the street," agreed Joan Freck, principal at Woodley Hills Elementary School and head of the elementary principals association until this week. "They go through a rigorous training and selection process."

School Board member Armando M. Rodriguez (Mount Vernon) said he does not accept that.

"Maybe we have nothing but superstars," said Rodriguez, who spent 10 years as a vice principal and principal in San Diego. "{But} not everybody's going to buy this stuff. If I was sitting in the taxpayer's box -- which I am -- I'd be saying, 'Gee, what do we have here?' "

A recent schools-commissioned poll showed that 62 percent of county residents consider principals good or excellent, while 16 percent rate them fair or poor. A union survey reported last year that in 13 percent of the schools, most teachers deemed their principals inadequate.

The pilot tests of the two other evaluation systems proved even more flattering of administrators.

Of 30 assistant principals and other school administrators judged during the test, 20 (67 percent) exceeded standards, nine (30 percent) met standards, one (3 percent) was below standards and none was ineffective. Of 33 area or central office educators rated, 16 (48 percent) exceeded standards, 17 (52 percent) met standards and none was below standards or ineffective.