Too many eighth-grade pupils spend their time in the classroom being treated as the human equivalent of sponges - being expected to absorb knowledge but not to think, a group of educators said Thursday.

"Our look inside grade eight does show that there is still far too much `dead wood' - old routines and practices that in the 1990s are no longer appropriate for, or effective with, early adolescents," said a study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.The report found much eighth-grade instruction to be passive, with students spending much of their time listening to teachers talk, copying from the chalkboard, reading assignments and taking tests. Most of the curricula focused little on critical thinking or the interests or concerns of the adolescents, it said.

The report was based on the observations and records of experienced educators in 162 schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia during March 1989. Earlier studies by the principals association focused on the sixth and ninth grades.

"Many schools are organized as if students are sponges that will absorb whatever comes their way," said Laurel M. Kanthak, the association's director of middle-level education.

The report said 14-year-olds are very concerned about how they look and have a need to socialize for healthy emotional growth. They also demonstrate an increase sophistication of thinking skills that are ready for higher-order questions from their teachers.

Yet, said John Lounsbury, senior author of the report, the traditional school program is "cold and canned" and viewed by the students as a thing apart from their struggle to become independent young adults. For example, he said, socialization in the schools is often restricted or curtailed. Classes are departmentalized, even though studies show that subjects should be integrated.