The Supreme Court yesterday allowed school systems that once discriminated on the basis of race to be freed from court-ordered busing plans if they have done their best to eliminate the effects of their old, segregated systems.

Dividing 5 to 3, the justices said a federal appeals court erred when it told Oklahoma City school officials that they could not abandon a 13-year-old busing plan for children in grades one through four and return to neighborhood schools.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said federal court supervision of local school systems had always been "intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination" and was not meant "to operate in perpetuity."

In emphasizing the importance of local control over schools, the court seemed to send a signal that will encourage school boards seeking to be freed from desegregation decrees and caution lower court judges not to interfere unnecessarily with their plans.

More than 500 school systems, including the Prince George's County schools, are operating under such court orders.

The three dissenting justices said the ruling "suggests that 13 years of desegregation was enough" and "risks subordination of the constitutional rights of Afro-American children to the interest of school board autonomy."

Writing for the majority in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, Rehnquist said the appeals court had imposed too hard a test on school officials.

He sent it back for review under a more relaxed test: whether the board had "complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered, and whether the vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable."

Rehnquist said the appeals court approach "would condemn a school district, once governed by a board which intentionally discriminated, to judicial tutelage for the indefinite future."

Nothing in the Constitution, he added, requires that "Draconian result."

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, said the majority failed to take into account that the very harm the busing decree was meant to remedy -- the existence of one-race schools that stigmatize black children -- would reemerge if the busing were stopped and the system allowed to return to neighborhood schools.

"So long as such conditions persist, the purposes of the decree cannot be deemed to have been achieved," he said, emphasizing that Oklahoma required school segregation by law when it became a state in 1907 and that the history of the school board "reveals nearly unflagging resistance" to desegregation efforts.

The ruling was unclear on some major points of how that stan- dard is to be applied, particu- larly how courts should treat residential segregation when deciding whether school systems have eliminated the vestiges of discrimination.

In Oklahoma City, for example, the persistence of housing segregation meant that the return to neighborhood schools in 1985 created 11 virtually all-black schools, attended by about 44 percent of black schoolchildren in those grades.

The court relegated that issue, which was in many ways the crux of the case, to a footnote instructing the lower court to review again whether the current housing patterns are the "result of private decisionmaking and economics" or the lingering effect of segregated schools.

Justice David H. Souter was not confirmed at the time the case was argued in October and therefore did not participate in yesterday's ruling.

In Prince George's County, the only local jurisdiction where schools are under a desegregation order, Superintendent John A. Murphy said he had no plans to seek to be excused from court control but might ask for permission to make certain adjustments.

Oklahoma City school officials said they were pleased with the decision and expressed confidence they would win under the new test.

"I think this is a major victory for the school board and it's a case of major significance in the school desegregation area," said Charles J. Cooper, a former assistant attorney general who advised the school board at the Supreme Court stage.

School districts that want to be released from busing orders, he said, "are vastly better off today than they were yesterday."

Civil rights lawyers said the ruling could have been worse and emphasized that much was left undecided. But a number of them said they found it a troubling signal from a court that they view as increasingly hostile to civil rights in general.

"If Justice Marshall's interpretation is correct, it opens the door to a new generation of segregated schools and a betrayal of the promise of Brown," said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the court's 1954 desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education.

"I think this is bad news but it does leave some stuff open for interpretation," said civil rights lawyer William L. Taylor. "Unfortunately, most of it will be interpreted by judges who don't know the history {of school segregation} and who we have reason to think are unsympathetic."

Julius L. Chambers, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which brought the case on behalf of black schoolchildren in Oklahoma City, said it was "good news" that the court rejected the argument that a school board should be allowed to abandon a desegregation plan "simply because it's complied with the order for a brief period of time."

But Chambers said the court's application of that test to Oklahoma City "did raise some serious concerns" because, he said, "it's clear that this school board hasn't eliminated the vestiges of discrimination 'to the extent practicable.' "

Gwendolyn B. Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said the ruling leaves "a lot of unanswered questions." But, she said, "I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on school boards to go back to neighborhood schools where they're not presently operating under them."

Staff writer Michele L. Norris contributed to this report.