MOBILE, ALA., JULY 28 -- The nation's governors kicked off their drive for better education today with a call for an end to ability grouping and "tracking" of students.

The National Governors Association's education task force said ability grouping in early grades makes "low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies" and tracking in high school leaves far too many students "unprepared for either work or post-secondary education."

Even as the report was released, a backstage battle broke into the open over the structure and independence of the group that is supposed to monitor how well the state and federal governments are fulfilling the commitment made at President Bush's education "summit" with the governors last fall.

The governors and the White House have been negotiating to form a joint task force of governors and administration officials, but had not reached agreement on whether and how Congress should be represented.

Today, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) complicated those negotiations by asserting, in a letter, that the monitoring commission should be established by law and -- in addition to White House, gubernatorial and congressional representatives -- should include private citizens with expertise in education.

White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu said in an interview earlier in the week, "The last thing we need is . . . another layer, another bureaucratic structure, another review body." South Carolina Governor Carroll A. Campbell Jr. (R), co-chairman of the Education Task Force, said today Congress was a junior partner in educational funding and protested the Mitchell-Foley effort to "box us in."

But Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who reportedly was influential in obtaining the letter from the congressional leaders, said that, "unless you have some people auditing progress who are not worried about the next election," the effort will lack credibility.

The issue has been simmering since the governors met with Bush at the Charlottesville education "summit" last fall and later formalized the six national education goals at the February NGA meeting in Washington. They promised annual report cards on their progress, but left unresolved the question of who would determine the grades. Congress has had no voice in the process so far.

On paper, the president and the governors have pledged that by the year 2000, all children in America will start school "ready to learn," the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent, all students will have demonstrated competency in basic subjects in the fourth, eighth and 12th grade, U.S. students will be "first in the world in mathematics and science," adult illiteracy will be wiped out and every school will be free of drugs and violence.

The report issued today outlines state strategies for achieving these ambitious goals, but is virtually silent on the role of the federal government. While it says that "creating a national report card makes clear that governors and the president share responsibility for achieving the goals," the "national leadership agenda" is discussed only on two pages of the 44-page report.

That discussion concludes cautiously: "Additional changes in the federal role may be required over time. It is important that those changes be developed cooperatively with the states. Governors expect to be actively involved in . . . identifying the need for new or revised federal programs."

National Governors Association sources attributed the brevity of that section to signals from the White House that the administration would resist any effort to pin down new federal initiatives. "We didn't want to get into another endless negotiation with them over that," one NGA official said, "especially since most of the governors think most of the responsibility is in their hands anyway."

The strategies book is a compendium of proposals for making preschool programs more widely available, restructuring schools, upgrading teacher education and expanding education into a life-long activity that have come from a wide variety of professional, business and citizen groups in the past decade.

It marks the first time that the governors have called for abandonment of the ability grouping and tracking schemes many schools use to classify diverse student bodies.

But similar stands have been enunciated recently by a number of educators, particularly but not solely those working with minority groups. A recent report by the Quality Education for Minorities Project, for example, charged that tracking causes damage that "lasts a lifetime."

Earlier this month, the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, released a study that concluded tracking does more harm than good, often segregating students into racially identifiable groups. The study found minorities to be under-represented in "gatekeeper classes," such as eighth-grade algebra and ninth-grade geometry, that lead to advanced courses.

At the opening press conference of the annual convention, the NGA chairman, Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad (R), told reporters that as a group the governors oppose the administration proposal in budget negotiations to limit to $10,000 a year the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted from federal taxes.

"We're willing to shoulder our share of the burden," he said. "But we do not think the deductibility of state and local taxes should be further eroded."

Brandstad also said he was "mad as hell" at the prospect that taxpayers in his state will have to pay some of the costs to bail out savings and loan "high rollers in other states who are trying to line their pockets and help their buddies."

Democratic governors caucused privately late today to frame positions on savings and loan and other issues expected to provide grist for partisan fighting later in the meeting.

Staff writer Kenneth J. Cooper contributed to this report.