A new plan to bring District of Columbia public school students up to national norms of achievement and to ensure that pupils graduate from elementary school knowing how to read and write is facing serious problems just two months after it was started.

The detailed plan, which applies to 21,622 pupils in grades one through three in the District's 126 elementary schools, requires them to master basic language and math skills.

For example, students in the first semester of the second grade must show they can recognize consonant and vowel sounds, construct words with suffixes and prefixes, and identify the main idea of a story. Pupils who do not master required skills in the fall semester will not be promoted to the next semester in January, when half-year promotions occur.

In a spot check of 12 schools, nine principals reported that an average of one of every five pupils at their schools is in danger of failing and not being promoted to do the next semester's work. But at some of the schools, as many as half of the third grade pupils are failing. In three of the schools, principals reported no problems.

"It's pathetic," Mary Williams, principal at Syphax Elementary in one of the city's poverty pockets in Southwest, said of the high failing rate. An entire third grade class of 23 pupils at Syphax probably will not be ready to move on in January, she said.

"Teachers are becoming quite frustrated because they feel that they are being held accountable for student progress with so little time for students to master the skills," Williams said.

At Amidon School in Southwest, as many as three teachers are working with some third graders on their reading, but principal Dolores Zucker said that about 17 of 49 third graders have still not learned the skills they are supposed to in the first nine weeks of the school year.

"Some kids are just not going to master these skills," said Vandy Jamison, principal of Green Elementary in Southeast, where pupils generally are working at the level they should be. Nontheless, he said about 60 of his 327 first, second and third grade pupils are not mastering the required skills. 3

"So what are we going to do, have kids growing a beard in the third grade?" he asked.

School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed, who almost has staked his career on the success of this new "pupil progress plan," and the other school official who worked on it insist it is too early to tell if the new method will ultimately succeed or fail.

"We suspected that [students would fall behind in the beginning]," Reed said. "It's going to take time. I suspect no principal expected instant success after the school system has experienced years of low-level achievement."

The plan calls for pupils who have not been promoted because they did not master the skills of the first semester to get "special help," tailored to their individual needs, during the second semester. It also calls for "transition classes" for pupils who need help in just math or reading, but not both, to catch up with their classmates.

But because of the budget crisis in the school system and the resulting shortage of teachers, there will be no new instructors the second semester to form the "transition classes" or give extra help to the failed students.

Most pupils still will find themselves in the same classrooms the second semester as the first, whether they are working at, above or below their grade level and not getting any more help than they are now.

In the second grade class at Bruce-Monroe Elementary in the Columbia Heights section of Northwest, teacher Dorothy Porter already has her 32 pupils divided into three different learning levels. The Owls are working at grade level, while the Bunnies are working at a slightly slower rate. The Seahorses are a group of 10 students who are still doing first grade work in many cases and are not likely to move on to the 2B level in January.

One day last week, one of the Seahorses, a tiny pigtailed girl in tan Wranglers and shoes with untied laces, walked to the blackboard, but could not perform the task Porter asked her to: distinguishing one consonant from another. The 7-year-old still needs to count on her fingers to add 4 plus 4. She is doing first-grade work, Porter said.

Of the 23 "critical" reading skills for grade level 1B, the pigtailed second grader has mastered four. Of the four "critical" math skills to be learned in 1B, the pupil has accomplished one, according to Porter.

Some school administration officials say they now think they may have acted too hastily in trying to implement such a sweeping plan. The city's school board wanted to implement the plan in grades one through six this year, while the school administrators only wanted to start the plan in the first grade. The compromise was to initiate the basis skills instruction in grades one through three.

"It might have been better to phase it in, year by year," said Alma Felder, Bruce-Monroe's principal. In that way, students would have been accustomed to meeting the standards of the pupil progress plan from their first year in school.

As it is now, some students are two years behind grade level, so they will have to catch up on two years' work in order to be promoted at the end of this year.

The kind of work Porter gives her three groups of students is very different. On one recent day, the Owls and the Bunnies spent the morning on a new vocabulary-building lesson in which they formed new words from the roots of words they already knew.

For example, they took the word all, and then by adding a new letter to the beginning of it, formed new words, such as ball and tall.

Sometimes Porter would give them a "clue" to help them form a new word. For the word song, the clue was king. The new word to be formed: sing.

While the Owls and Bunnies did this, the Seahorses, the slowest group, had the assignment of coloring in a leaf, a turtle and a pear sketched out on a mimeographed sheet of paper and then writing "L," "T" and "P," the first letters of the three words. The Seahorses were still on trying to distinguish consonants, a lesson which the other students had completed at the beginning of the school year.

Dr. Reuben Pierce, one of the associate superintendents who helped originate the pupil progress plan, said that even if students who are not working on grade level are left in the same class the second semester, teachers should use different activities and approaches with the students the second time around to help them grasp the concepts they failed to get in the first semester.

At Bruce-Monroe, in a mixed low- and middle-income neighborhood near Howard University, principal Felder said she may call on the librarian, art and music teachers to incorporate reading lessons into their subject areas.

Reading and math specialists are already working with the Bruce-Monroe students, to supplement their regular classroom work. Still, many students are not grasping the skills.

School officials say the success of the plan depends in good measure on the cooperation of parents, who have been asked to go over the children's assignments with them at home. And for the first time, parents are required to personally pick up their child's report card.

Every week, Porter sends home papers explaining to parents the lessons their children have had in school. "In effect, we are teaching the parents as well," Felder said.

But parent attendance at school workshops and meetings scheduled for discussion of the plan has been "minimal," according to Felder, who said many of the parents find it difficult to take off from work or are themselves enrolled in school. About 30 percent of the families of Bruce-Monroe pupils are on welfare, she said.

But parents who have taken the time to discuss the plan with school officials are enthusiastic.

"I certainly don't think of it as a burden to help my child with her schoolwork," said Vernell Hall, mother of one of Porter's second graders. "We should all be a lot more interested in helping our children."