Shaky grammar and spelling could not mask the ambition in 10-year-old Donna Montgomery's journal entry: I think that summer school is great. Because I am learning much more than I did in regelar school. I hope i learn more than i know so that i can go on to the next grade.

The choppy sentences were closer to fourth-grade level than the sixth-grade class to which Donna aspired. Just like the dismal test scores that landed her in summer school, they confirmed that she had not come close to mastering the fifth-grade curriculum.

But Donna's teachers and principal promoted her anyway. She is now a proud member of this year's sixth-grade class at Ketcham Elementary School in Anacostia--still struggling far below grade level but, according to her teacher, making progress.

"The light bulb turned on with Donna the last three weeks" of summer school, said Myrna Shields, a 29-year veteran who has Donna now and taught her this summer. "Given the opportunity . . . she can perform."

In Chicago and New York, which like the District have launched massive remedial summer programs in recent years, promotion from certain grades depends on standardized test scores before and after the summer session.

But D.C. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman lets principals and teachers decide who will advance, using classroom performance as well as the standard measurement, the Stanford 9 Achievement Test scores. Students took the test in the spring, and did not retake it after summer school.

While some D.C. elementary schools held back virtually all students whose test scores fell below Ackerman's recommended minimum, Ketcham Principal Romaine Thomas and others retained fewer than half.

The discrepancies reflect how complicated the question of whom to promote can be. Principals weigh the abilities of individual students and teachers, a child's motivation to move ahead and whether the school can provide him or her with extra tutoring and other help.

Thomas--who denied promotions to 18 of 42 possible students--believed Donna had built a strong bond with Shields and would benefit from being one of her 24 students, rather than returning to a significantly larger fifth-grade class. At her recommendation, Donna is receiving tutoring and other supplemental instruction this year.

"Just retention for the sake of retention does not work," Thomas said. "You've got to design a program that will meet [a student's] needs."

Shields is keeping close tabs on Donna, who says her concentration has improved, as well as her reading and math skills.

"I tried my best," Donna said on a recent lunch break, "so I could go to the sixth grade."

For years, research has shown that youngsters who repeat a grade are more likely than their peers to lose interest in school. Those held back twice almost always quit.

Thomas, Ketcham's principal since 1971, has read such studies. She sees retention as an absolute last resort, especially at her school, where most youngsters come from poorly educated, low-income families.

But in the face of growing national concern about low student achievement, school districts, states and the Clinton administration are searching for ways to keep students in school and move them closer to grade level.

"Educators must know they have alternatives to holding back students . . . which can be as detrimental" as promoting those who are not ready, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley wrote in a guide he issued this summer to school districts nationwide. "Otherwise, they may be reluctant to end the practice of social promotion."

The District does much of what the federal government espouses: improving teacher training and school curriculum, offering remedial Saturday and summer classes, and basing promotion decisions on more than standardized tests.

But the District has not developed transitional programs, as Riley recommends, with small classes and intense instruction that could help students catch up. Such programs are succeeding in Cincinnati, Long Beach, Calif., and elsewhere.

Asked if similar methods would help Donna and others like her, Shields nodded enthusiastically. She imagined working with 15 students--the summer school limit--or even fewer, assisted by an aide specially trained in reading strategies, a counselor to help youngsters put aside problems that plague them at home and other special resources.

"Just inundating them with the skills that they need," is how Shields described it. "Because their minds are open, and they have basic understanding."

Ackerman said she wants individual schools to "create the programs that they think will support their children the best, rather than mandate" a district-wide option.

But such initiatives are expensive and difficult for schools to create on their own.

Ackerman--who closely monitored summer school and promotion decisions in 1998--said she has barely studied the issue this year because she has been distracted by other crises. She had not asked how many students were denied promotions until The Washington Post requested the information early this month.

Principals reported that 2,767--or 9.2 percent--of last year's first- through fifth-graders were retained, about 300 fewer than last year. Nearly 700 students whose scores were below the recommended cutoff were promoted after summer school.

"In the last two years . . . we've gone from promoting everybody to holding 3,000 kids back," Ackerman said. "We're making progress. What we're trying to do is give these children extra time to learn."

New York's strict reliance on test scores proved disastrous this summer, when scoring errors by CTBS/McGraw Hill meant as many as 8,000 students were wrongly told they had to improve or be held back. Chicago, which pioneered the crackdown on promotions five years ago, will rely on teacher recommendations as well as test scores starting this year.

Ackerman said she will continue to study the D.C. data and track whether students retained this year receive the help they need to succeed.

"What sound?" Shields snapped her fingers in her summer school classroom one day, and the students pointed to an underlined portion of a word in their workbooks. The exercises broke words down into syllables and sounds--again and again and again.

Er! they chorused.

"What word?" Pow-er-ful!

"What sound?" Sh!

"What word?" Blushed!

"Very good."

It was hot in the room, but Shields's summer battles went beyond the heat. Workbook deliveries were delayed by more than a week, so she made do with materials left over from the Saturday remedial program. When she received the new books, they were a lower skill level than she wanted, and she was told--wrongly, according to a top school official interviewed for this story--that the more advanced books were reserved for middle school.

Some of Shields's fifth- and sixth-graders read so poorly that they were most comfortable with children's picture books she kept on a table in her classroom. As the summer progressed, they slowly mastered the stories in their workbooks. But they faltered when Shields handed out booklets titled "Taking the Terror Out of the Stanford 9," filled with difficult reading-comprehension questions like those on the test.

Donna, and many of her classmates, struggled to get even half of the answers right.

Shields said most of the youngsters were working on a fourth- or low fifth-grade level. All but Donna had Stanford 9 scores slightly above Ackerman's minimum for promotion to the sixth grade. But those scores still left them at the high end of the "below basic" category, which the testing company defines as "having little or no mastery" of grade-level skills.

"I guess you've got to start them on a level where they can work, then build them up," Shields said one day. Another time, she wondered whether having the higher-level workbooks might have helped bridge the gap.

Donna was too ashamed to tell her mother that she might have to repeat fifth grade. All summer, she missed only two days of class. She rushed home each afternoon to do homework, with the help of her prized dictionary, before heading outside to play.

"I'm going to feel embarrassed if I stay back," Donna explained one sticky morning. "All the other kids will pass, and I'm going to be the only one still in fifth."

Shields's class this school year includes Donna and 11 others she taught this summer. "I still get kids who can't even copy from the board," Shields said. "In all fairness . . . Donna works better than some kids who were passed" on the basis of their scores.

The class, including Donna, got off to a good start this fall and should all be on grade level by spring, Shields said..

"I don't know if it will be high sixth-grade level, though I will attempt to do that," Shields said after school one day. "But I know I will see significant improvement--I can tell that already."

On a recent morning, Shields asked her fledgling sixth-graders to read the introduction to a story, then guess what the plot would be. Donna raised her hand shyly to offer an answer, smiling as Shields told her she had done well.

When her turn came to read, she made no mistakes: Moving slowly over damp brown leaves, Jenny could sense her ears tingle and fan out as she listened for thick breathing from the trees . . .

"Excellent, Donna," Shields said.

Downstairs, Thomas pondered whether she had made the right decision. "This is a real challenge, to the whole nation," she said.

Thomas has arranged for Donna and other struggling students to receive specialized reading and math instruction several times a week. When a tutoring program staffed by Howard University students gets underway, Donna will be matched with a tutor. She will also be encouraged to attend remedial math and reading classes to be held on Saturdays starting next month.

Donna's progress will be measured in large part by how she does on diagnostic Stanford 9 exams that all D.C. students begin taking today, and how much she improves when she takes the end-of-the-year exams next spring.

"I'm hoping it will work out," Thomas said, her eyebrows anxious. "And if at the end of the year, I have to retain her at Ketcham school, we'll feel comfortable in doing that."

CAPTION: In the sixth grade at Ketcham, Juanita Williams, front, prepares for a reading lesson. Across the table from her is Danianda Keys. Both were in summer school with Donna.