Virginia's and Maryland's school standards get an overall grade of C-plus, and the District's standards earn a B-minus in a new report by a Washington-based think tank.

The report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which was to be released today, rated each state's program to raise academic expectations for public schools and their students. It painted a generally dim picture of those efforts, saying that most states have weak standards and poorly designed plans for holding schools responsible for meeting those standards.

Only five states--Alabama, California, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas--combine "solid academic standards with strong school accountability systems," the report's authors said. Maryland and Virginia were ranked as having mediocre standards but strong accountability plans.

"The shocking news is that 11 years after governors embraced the standards-and-accountability strategy . . . most states have not successfully completed even the first step," said Fordham Foundation President Chester E. Finn Jr., who was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. "Their standards are mediocre or worse."

Finn said the report is not meant to "trash" the standards-based reform movement but to encourage states to redouble their efforts. "We're pleased to find enough places doing it well to show that it's possible," he said.

State education officials cautioned against putting too much weight on the evaluation. They noted that several groups have put out such rankings, each one using different criteria and reaching a different conclusion.

For example, the American Federation of Teachers gave the curriculum standards in Virginia, Maryland and the District high rankings in a report released in November.

"Every one of these ratings has a bias to it," said Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education. "Consequently, depending on who's doing the rating, we're going to be doing better or worse."

The Fordham Foundation study gave Maryland's curriculum standards a grade of B in English, history and geography; a C in math and a D in science. The math standards "fail to indicate . . . where mathematical reasoning is to be taught, emphasized or used," the report said, and the science standards are often unclear.

Virginia, which has not changed its standards since a similar study by the foundation in 1998, got an A in history; a B in English and math; and a D in geography and science.

The foundation said Virginia placed geography "in a supporting role" in its history standards, and it said the science standards lack "examples of how the student might demonstrate mastery of a topic."

Kirk T. Schroder, president of the Virginia Board of Education, said Virginia scored low in geography and science mostly because of philosophical differences between the state and the foundation.

He said Virginia has taken a broad, conceptual approach to its science standards, while the foundation prefers "a more technical and very specific approach on an item-by-item basis."

The District received an A in English and geography, a B in math and an F in history. The history standards do not show what is to be taught and learned in any particular grade, the report said.

The District has not completed its new science standards and therefore was not graded in that area.

D.C. schools spokeswoman Denise Tann did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Gerald W. Bracey, an education researcher, said the foundation's rankings are useless because they are not connected to actual student achievement. He noted that the five states that ranked highest in the Fordham report are among the lowest-scoring on student tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

But Finn said the report was not intended to measure current student performance but to examine whether states are laying a good foundation for improvement.

"If a state has really good standards and a really good accountability model, they've got a pretty good chance of having better student achievement tomorrow," Finn said.