Before Terri Laufer graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda last year, she seldom questioned the value of the education she was receiving.

It was working for her -- she was getting good grades and had been accepted by Princeton.

But as a college freshman this year, she's taken a second, more critical look and arrived at some insights into her secondary schooling.

"In high school I was working for grades -- working to get here," she said. "Here I had to make the adjustment to working for myself. At high school I could explain away any failings in other areas by saying, 'I'm smarter than the others and I'm going to Princeton.' Here you see your academic talents are nothing special. It dissipates your confidence in yourself."

By being accepted by Princeton, which can select the best and the brightest from American secondary schools, Laufer and other freshmen have demonstrated their success on the educational ladder. Their acceptance at Princeton also is a tribute to the schools that prepared them.

But when asked about their high school education, these gifted students sometimes ask searching questions about themselves.

Are they self-confident individuals? Have they learned to think for themselves? Did their schools help them develop the critical judgment valued so highly at Princeton?

These are abstract questions for which there are no definitive answers or statistical measurements.

But they came up frequently when more than half the 25 Princeton freshmen from the Washington area were asked to evaluate their high schools.

Students, although they are among the best qualified to assess the quality of secondary education, rarely have their opinions sought or carefully weighed by those with the power to shape school programs.

"The basic motivating force in schools is fear," said David Naimon, who graduated from Northwood High School in Silver Spring. "People are afraid of failure, so people do the minimum to get by and get a grade. We definitely were overtested. There's little emphasis on thinking for yourself -- just spitting out random facts."

In his senior year, Naimon was a student representative on the Montgomery County School Board, where he often clashed with board president Marian Greenblatt.

Naimon is convinced that schools do not welcome or invite criticism from students -- a fact that may explain why some of the freshmen expressed surprise that The Washington Post was interested in their opinions, and why one graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in the District predicted that the article would not be published.

It was also clear from interviews with individual freshmen and from a two-hour group discussion held on a shady campus lawn the final week of classes that criticism of their high schools does not come easily.

Even while outlining problems ranging from severe racial tensions to inept administrators, most of the freshmen spoke favorably about their alma maters, from Coolidge High School in the inner city to private St. Albans. m

It was only after probing and follow-up questions that the freshmen related their adjustment problems at Princeton to possible shortcomings in the high schools.

Ramona Mason from Northwest Washington acknowledged that she has experienced moments of self-doubt similar to those of Laufer.

Mason attended Sidwell Friends, a demanding private school in Northwest that admits about one in 12 applicants. All but one of the 96 seniors in her class were accepted into college.

At Sidwell, Mason said, she seldom failed at anything. She graduated among the top 10, took gymnastics, played soccer and tennis and was a cheerleader.

But this steady record of success may not have prepared her to handle the inevitable setbacks, she suggests.

When she received a "D" at Princeton on a midterm exam in math, her best subject, "it totally threw me," she said.

"I do worry about failure -- I worry that failure will upset me," she added. And she spoke of "hesitating on the balance beam" and of not auditioning for the Princeton choir because she "wasn't sure I'd make it."

Another complaint of some of the freshmen is that they weren't prepared for the independent thinking required in their college courses.

Donna George from Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville recalls a freshman English exam in which she had to write an essay on a subject of her choice instead of on an assigned theme.

"I wasn't used to it," she recalled. "I was sort of scared to do it.

"Here they encourage creativity and taking risks in what you're saying. At [high] school it wasn't rewarded at all."

Laufer recalled an eleventh-grade European history class in which there was a quiz each Friday on "trivial little things."

"There was nothing about the interaction of power in Europe or how kings worked," she added. "The result is I know no European history now."

Beyond their broader concerns about the academic shortcomings of some of their high schools, the freshmen's "report card" included a variety of specific criticisms.

George criticized her high school's sports programs as geared to "stars" rather than to attracting those students with lesser abilities. "I would have liked to have been in sports, but it was too hard to break in," she said.

Jim Rixse said there was a feeling at Yorktown High in Arlington that sports had a low priority. "We had no intramurals and not much in the way of facilitites," he said. The junior varsity baseball team "had to walk half a mile to its field."

Jane Shumate and Andrew Simon, both white, said they were often concerned about their safety at Woodrow Wilson High School, a predominantly black school in Northwest.

They both blamed "inept administrators" who Shumate said, "treated everybody like problems kids."

'It fostered a healthy cynicism," said Simon.

Naimon cited "atrocious" college counseling in Montgomery County schools. "I still don't really know why I chose Princeton," he said.

"There's very little discussion about the pros and cons of large and small colleges or of much else that could be useful to seniors planning their future education."

He also criticized the high schools' tendency to discourage extracurricular activities, recalling that he was "hassled" when he missed classes because of school board activities.

He said that recent concerns about slipping academics and test scores have fostered a narrow view that misses the point.

If the Washington contingent of Princeton's Class of '83 is any indication, some of the most important "education" went on outside the high school classroom -- and even outside the school.

Naimon thinks his work on the school board and his involvement in a Maryland congressional campaign were the two most important educational achievements of his high school years.

For Laufer, three years of volunteer work at the Great Oaks center for retarded persons forced her, she said to "open myself to horrible suffering."

Donna Goldbloom, an all-America swimmer at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, credits the qualities developed in competitive sports with spilling over into academics and helping her get into Princeton.

And when Shumate and Simon look back on their high school years, it isn't their academic achievements that they are most proud of, but having attended an integrated public school, surviving, and getting into a top college.

"Don't get the idea that I'm some wounded creature," Shumate said in describing the occasional sexual or racial harassment or threats she experienced. "There definitely were bad things at Wilson, but I got a realization of evil things in the world."

It is these qualities of resilience, determination and curiosity that college admissions officers say they are looking for but often not finding in high school graduates.

Generalizations about college students are risky, but Spencer Reynolds of Princeton's admissions office says that today's undergraduates seem more silent and less critical than their predecessors a decade ago.

"It seems to many that the current wave is asking whether their education will get them where they want to go rather than whether it is meaningful," he said.

"You have to ask yourself how 16-year-olds know with such certainty that they want to be doctors," said Richard Williams, Princeton's assistant dean of students. "Kids need more confidence in their worth to society as people with a liberal education . . . I see too many one-dimensional kids, too many shells, at the end of four years."

Such a fate is not for Charlie Mott, a St. Albans graduate who was 12th in his class his junior year, and 26th in his senior year.

Two summers ago, Mott set out to Alaska and spend weeks in an Eskimo community.

"I talked to the Princeton admissions people right after Alaska -- and I was so excited about everything I could hardly control myself . . . I must have conveyed this to the people at Princeton," he said.

Mott said he has had a "great year" at Princeton, playing lacrosse, painting (his hobby) and not worrying too much about grades.

"There's a certain paranoia among people who've been getting As at high school," he said. "They feel they have to get As to satisfy a need. I've told myself that I'm going to keep on doing the things I enjoy."