Nearly a third of the District's public school principals would have been rated "unsatisfactory" this year if Superintendent Arlene Ackerman hadn't softened her new system for evaluating their performance.

But under the revised evaluation method, six of the city's 146 principals received "unsatisfactory" ratings, Ackerman said in an interview. They will be asked to leave the school system or be reassigned to lesser jobs unless they can convince the superintendent that they deserve another chance.

The number of principals who received the top rating of "outstanding" shrank to 12 this year, from 42 last year and many more in previous years.

"When I came here . . . very few people got less than outstanding," said Ackerman, who was hired as deputy superintendent two years ago. "I think a lot of principals and schools were surprised, and they will go into next year looking at things differently."

Ackerman changed the rating system because of complaints that she was being too rigid and relying too heavily on standardized test scores. She decided instead to give principals what amounted to partial credit if their students improved their scores on the rigorous Stanford 9 Achievement Test, even if those students didn't improve as much as Ackerman had wanted.

But the superintendent kept her strict performance targets when deciding which schools will receive cash bonuses this fall. Seven schools that raised the scores by a specific margin in six categories will receive $15,000, and 25 that met four or five of the six targets will be awarded $3,750 or $7,500.

The bonuses--the first of their kind--went to some struggling schools, such as Birney Elementary in an impoverished neighborhood of Southeast Washington, as well as those that enjoy stronger reputations, such as Hine Junior High on Capitol Hill and the School Without Walls Senior High School in Foggy Bottom.

To earn bonuses, schools were required to move 10 percent of their students who scored "below basic" in math and reading in 1998 to the "basic" category. In addition, they had to move 5 percent of those in the basic category to the "proficient" category and 5 percent of those who scored proficient to the "advanced" category.

The intense focus on standardized test scores has drawn criticism from many principals, teachers and parents, who argue that the exams are just one measure of what a child is learning. They also question Ackerman's emphasis on moving youngsters from one test score category, such as below basic, to another, noting that the groupings are so broad that a student's score can rise many percentage points but still fall into the below basic rating.

"We understand that in the short run, they had to have a clear measurement of accountability, but we feel alarmed about the focus," said Cathy Reilly, a parent and founder of the Senior High School Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators. "To focus this much on the test scores is a concern."

Ackerman last year gave principals full credit for academic achievement if their test scores improved at all. This year, those whose schools improved but did not meet her targets received at most a satisfactory rating, if they scored well in other areas such as financial management, school climate and parental involvement.

More than half the principals--79--were rated "satisfactory," up from 42 last year, while more than a quarter were rated "needs improvement." Ackerman said many in the latter group have been told that they are on probation this year and that they will not have their contracts renewed unless their rating rises to satisfactory by next summer.

She said that she will give partial credit for improvements again next year but will not lower her targets of how many students to move out of each test score category.

Under a new labor agreement awaiting approval by the D.C. Council and D.C. financial control board, principals next year would qualify for extra pay raises if they are rated outstanding. As has been the case in past years, they would not get raises if they are rated unsatisfactory or in need of improvement.

The contract would significantly raise principal salaries--from a minimum of $52,445 at the elementary school level, for example, to $64,420--to be competitive with suburban jurisdictions and the country.

"We're asking a lot of . . . principals now. We're asking what we should be asking," Ackerman said. "But I think we need to pay them for it."

Ackerman said she hopes to announce which schools will have new principals by the end of next week--much later than some other jurisdictions. School officials are rushing to finish filling more than 20 vacancies.

Principals whose schools won bonuses will share their success stories with other principals at the annual Superintendent's Conference in mid-August.

"It all comes out of hard work," said Birney Principal Yvonne Morse, who gave up art, science and specialty reading and math teachers to hire four new classroom teachers and lower class sizes. "Hard work and staying focused."

DISTRICT PRINCIPALS UNDER REVIEW

Under D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's revised evaluation system, six principals were rated "unsatisfactory" and probably will leave their jobs. Twelve received ratings of "outstanding."

PRINCIPAL EVAULATIONS*

Outstanding

Spring 1998: 42

Spring 1999 (Prior to adjustments): 12

Spring 1999 (After adjustments): 12

Satisfactory

Spring 1998: 62

Spring 1999 (Prior to adjustments): 42

Spring 1999 (After adjustments): 79

Needs improvement

Spring 1998: 24

Spring 1999 (Prior to adjustments): 41

Spring 1999 (After adjustments): 39

Unsatisfactory

Spring 1998: 16

Spring 1999 (Prior to adjustments): 46

Spring 1999 (After adjustments): 6

*Numbers do not add up to 146 becuse some principles resigned or retired and were not evaluated.

SOURCE: D.C. Public Schools

STANFORD 9 PROGRESS

Thirty-two of the city's 146 schools earned bonus money this year for improving their Stanford 9 test scores.

Award: $15,000

Met six of six performance standards targets:

Birney Elementary

Burroughs Elementary

Seaton Elementary

Brent Elementary

Reed Elementary

Turner Elementary

Browne Junior High

Award: $7,500

Met five of six performance standards targets:

Adams Elementary

Dunbar Pre-engineering Academy

Green Elementary

Ludlow Taylor Elementary

Raymond Elementary

West Elementary

J.F. Cook Elementary

Garnet-Patterson Middle

P.R. Harris Educational Center

Payne Elementary

Takoma Educational Center

Award: $3,750

Met four of six performance standards targets:

Bancroft Elementary

Hine Junior High

Parview Elementary

School Without Walls

Woodson Academy of Business and Finance

Bell Multi-Cultural High

Kramer Middle

Patterson Elementary

Shepherd Elementary

Young Elementary

Hardy Middle

Meyer Elementary

Ross Elementary

Wheatley Elementary

SOURCE: District of Columbia Public Schools