About 250 District students are pioneers in an effort by the federal government to develop one of the most sought-after products within the Capital Beltway: clerical workers.

The program, the brainchild of the Office of Personnel Management and the school system, is what some educators call "the first step" in luring high school seniors into the federal job market.

At the top of the agenda is teaching students how to take the civil service exam, which in preliminary tests confounded nearly 80 percent of the participating students.

"For many years, there's been an initiative by the private sector to develop workers. The president, several years ago, asked the federal government to take the same initiative," said Lee Willis, deputy assistant director for the recruiting and testing arm of OPM. "This is our attempt to do that."

Since 1987, the federal government has been waging a tough campaign to attract qualified workers. The effort was aimed at competing more successfully with the expanding and better-paying private sector and finding workers in a high school graduate pool where many opt for college or graduate school.

Dolores Parker, supervising director for the District's Business Education Program, said the D.C. school system has been working with the federal government, including OPM and the Department of Labor, since spring to develop the program.

Six schools were selected for the pilot program, which is designed to promote positive attitudes about the workplace, teach students how to take the test and explore other career options.

"This is the first and the critical step. We intend to do a lot in developing basic skills that employers want," Parker said. "We have read the literature and looked at the research, and we are working on a program to give students the skills that employers want."

About 130 students from six high schools -- Ballou, Burdick, Cardozo, Chamberlain, Coolidge and Roosevelt -- took the civil service exam in October as part of their introduction to the program.

Most students -- 103 -- failed and did not score well on either the verbal or clerical speed portion of the test.

Although federal officials said the test is designed with a 50 percent failure rate, the low achievement of the District students highlights the need for greater training.

"There's not an awful lot of remediation you can do by the time students reach 12th grade," Parker said. "The classes will work with test items and teach them things such as reading a paragraph and recognizing the main idea of the paragraph."

Willis said no extra money has been allotted for the program; the lessons are being incorporated into the students' normal school day. Staff workers from OPM are supplementing regular teachers and are volunteering their time.

"We're talking learning basic skills and also developing good attitudes toward work and work habits and asking the question: What do you really want to get out of work?" Willis said.

PRELIMINARY CIVIL SERVICE EXAM

High..............Tests......Percentage

school............taken..........failed

Ballou................7.............100

Burdick..............12..............67

Cardozo...............3..............67

Chamberlain..........82..............80

Coolidge.............10..............70

Roosevelt............16..............79

Total...............130..............79

Note: The test is designed to have a 50% failure rate. The test was given in October to seniors in a pilot program designed to teach the students how to take the exam.