"Fully successful" is out; "valued performance" is in.

"Outstanding" is gone; "role model" is tops.

The terminology for job performance ratings is about to change at the Defense Department, perhaps as early as February, according to documents released by officials in charge of the new National Security Personnel System.

NSPS, about two years in the making, plans to jettison the 15-grade General Schedule pay system and replace it with broad salary ranges, known as "pay bands," and to link pay raises more rigorously to performance.

In the five-level NSPS rating system, more than 700,000 Defense civil service employees will have to be rated at least "fair" to receive an annual raise in their pay band or a locality pay adjustment. Defense civilians will have to show "valued performance" to get an additional performance-based raise or bonus.

Pay raises, in other words, will not be as predictable as they have been under the decades-old GS system, which Bush administration officials contend gives too much weight to length of service rather than job performance.

The government has promoted the idea of merit raises and promotions since 1883, when Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the first major step toward a career civil service, after a disappointed job seeker in 1881 assassinated President James A. Garfield.

In recent years, employees have been rated according to performance levels (five or three rungs, typically) or by pass-fail systems (used by the Navy, the Air Force and others).

Five-level systems typically rank employees as "outstanding," "exceeds fully successful," "fully successful," "minimally successful" or "unacceptable/unsatisfactory."

In designing NSPS, the Pentagon apparently decided to get rid of the old terminology, which has come in for its share of criticism and ridicule in recent years. Last year, the Merit Systems Protection Board said rating patterns showed that fewer than 1 percent of federal employees fell below the "fully successful" level. More than 40 percent were rated outstanding, the board said.

NSPS will rate employees on these performance levels: "role model," "exceeds expectations," "valued performance," "fair" and "unsuccessful."

Defense followed the path of a role model -- the Government Accountability Office -- in revamping its ratings nomenclature. At the GAO, Comptroller General David M. Walker has revamped pay and performance rules and launched the use of "role model" as his agency's top rating level.

Although a set of standard factors will be used to rate the performance of every employee, supervisors and employees will be able to tailor the criteria to fit specific jobs.

For example, employees on the professional/analytic pay schedule (such as accountants, lawyers and people in administrative jobs) will be rated in seven areas: technical proficiency, critical thinking, cooperation and teamwork, communication, customer focus, resource management and achieving results.

Their bosses will be held accountable in two additional categories: leadership abilities and supervision of employees.

Most performance management systems, of course, succumb to rating inflation. In some agencies in the past, a rating of "fully successful" turned out "not a good place to be" because it covered the bottom 10 percent to 20 percent of employees, said John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Still, Palguta said he would try to change terminology if he was at Defense -- if only to make a fresh start. " 'Valued performance' will take on the image of how it is applied. If a majority of folks fall into the 'valued performance' category, folks will feel okay about it," Palguta said.

Defense Teachers File Suit

The Federal Education Association, which bargains on behalf of about 8,000 teachers and other school personnel on military bases, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday seeking to be excluded from the National Security Personnel System.

The group bargains over salaries for teachers in the United States and over extra-duty compensation for teachers in Defense-operated schools overseas. NSPS does not permit bargaining over pay, and the suit contends that the new system runs counter to a law that links the pay of Defense teachers to salary schedules of school districts near military bases.

A coalition of federal unions has filed a separate suit to stop Defense workplace rules that would curb bargaining rights. The suit on behalf of the teachers also objects to the Pentagon's plan to limit union rights.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com