"Bureaucratic," "massive statistical overlay" and "useless" are just a few of the ways Northern Virginia educators describe a new rating system for the state's public schools.

Termed "Educational Performance Recognition" -- or "ERP" among the irreverent -- the program, which aims to compare how well school systems and individual schools are doing their job, is the brainchild of the state Department of Education.

By Aug. 15, all 136 school divisions in Virginia will have fed to Richmond 63 categories of data, arranged under such headings as "preparing students for college" and "preparing students for work." After the data have been analyzed, a report will be sent to the state Board of Education early next spring.

If the board approves, performance recognition will become an annual exercise that could replace the current school accreditation process, according to state officials.

The rating system was conceived three years ago, under the administration of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, as a means of rewarding good school systems and highlighting those in need of improvement. The best and the worst could receive extra state funding -- a bonus for those that shine, an incentive for improvement for those that don't.

School systems found wanting may be required to submit improvement plans, according to Emmett Ridley, who is heading the program for the state Department of Education.

"Reports have come out ranking divisions simply by test scores, but EPR goes beyond test scores" and is much fairer, Ridley said.

Nonetheless, the comprehensive requirements have most Northern Virginia school officials fuming.

"You're into another bureaucratic overlay of data-gathering," said Dolores Bohen, spokeswoman for Fairfax County schools.

School officials there say thousands of hours will be taken up collecting all the required information, which includes -- in addition to myriad test scores -- such items as the numbers of students passing physical fitness tests, taking foreign languages and Algebra I in eighth grade, and completing typing or keyboarding courses.

School divisions also are being asked to trace their students after graduation, gathering data on how many take vocational or remedial college courses.

As part of a national trend toward requiring more accountability for the dollars spent on education, Virginia is one of several states, including Maryland, developing standards to rate school systems according to the quality of the students being turned out.

Last month, the Maryland Board of Education approved a school performance program that will measure school systems against standards in attendance, promotion and dropout rates as well as student performance on tests.

"Outcomes is the buzzword these days," said Charles Fugitt, an official with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits schools in 11 southern states, including Virginia. "Everybody wants to see the product improve. Maybe someday somebody will come up with a way you can push certain buttons and you'll come up with a well-educated child."

"The Japanese have been doing these things for years in their industry," Ridley said. "The same standards they apply to industry, they apply to their schools."

Virginia officials say their rating system, which will cost $598,000 to implement this fiscal year and another half-million dollars in fiscal 1992 if the state board approves implementation, may be the nation's most comprehensive.

One of its most controversial elements is the method of comparing school systems by grouping each locality with a dozen others, all demographically similar according to eight characteristics.

The groups, called "clusters" by state officials, were devised using a complex statistical formula, Ridley said. Statisticians also are developing more than 100 groupings to compare individual schools across district lines.

By grouping and comparing schools, the state is "creating high stakes that encourage game-playing," said Beatrice Cameron, an associate superintendent of schools in Fairfax County. "You're also biasing instruction toward a few goals and diverting attention from teaching to doing paperwork."

When the state department announced the groupings recently, many school divisions complained, Ridley said, usually because they felt the grouping would cast them in an unfavorable light.

"Our contention is that our pool is not comparable," said Alexandria Superintendent Paul W. Masem. "We're in with Fairfax City {and} Falls Church, and I don't think they're very much like us."

Traditionally, Falls Church has posted some of the highest test scores in the state, while Alexandria students have hovered around the national average.

HOW SCHOOLS WILL BE RATED

Next spring Virginia will compare school systems based on criteria including the following:

Standardized test scores at four grade levels.

Numbers of eighth-graders taking foreign languages and Algebra I.

Graduates receiving advanced studies diplomas.

Advanced Placement course offerings.

Numbers of students taking vocational courses and passing licensing examinations.

Dropout and graduation rates.

Attendance.

Numbers of students repeating grades.

Pass rates on the literacy passport test.

Pass rates on physical fitness tests.

Numbers of special education students graduating and going on to employment or post-secondary education.