Kenneth S. Tollett, director of Howard University's Institute for the Study of Educational Policy, has a controversial theory about why some minority students are beginning to show more solid gains in standardized test scores while others continue to score far worse than white students. The ones who do poorly have inadequate self-esteem, he says, while the higher achievers feel good about themselves.

Just last week, we saw two dramatically different showings for minority students in the Washington Metropolitan area. In Montgomery County, two out of three black ninth graders and more than one out of two Hispanic students failed the state math competency exam last fall. Yet students in District public schools, in which enrollment is predominantly black, increased their scores dramatically on comprehensive standardized tests this spring, and elementary school students scored above national averages.

Tollett is aware that a return to basics, better discipline, the considerable skills of Superintendent Floretta McKenzie and nearly 9,000 volunteers share credit for D.C.'s upward surge in test scores. But he feels factors that can't be measured--motivation and a sense of self-worth--are other reasons for testing successes.

"Youngsters can respond if they are continually motivated--if the teachers have unconditional respect for the kids." The District is proving it is sending the right signals," Tollett feels.

McKenzie concurs. "We set out to try to show that black students could perform on par with any other students. Our premise was that as black educational professionals, if we couldn't do it, nobody could. We've done it with morale building, changes in attitude, improved academic and arts offerings. We've worked hard to build the self-confidence of students. Self-esteem was the intangible that has been moving this system."

While it may not be fair to make comparisons based on one Maryland test failed by 60 percent of all students statewide, some observers say some black students have a real problem maintaining their identity in Montgomery County, where there have been problems with busing and integration. In the early 1970s, outbreaks of racial violence spurred the county school board to form a committee to study race relations. After four years, this group achieved its objective of creating a mandatory black-studies course for 12,000 school system employes. By 1979, however, a new conservative school board had made the course optional for all but new teachers, despite angry cries from black county residents.

Now county teachers have to attend a human relations seminar 1 1/2 days a year--one recognition, says Associate Superintendent Lee Etta Powell, that a student's self-esteem is a "critical" factor in academic performance. She said she has no data to say precisely how significant absence of self-esteem is to academic performance.

Tollett believes the problem of low self-esteem hurts blacks in other areas as well. "Many encounter life feeling they cannot measure up to the norms of society. It explains the almost virulent form of jealousy among blacks, why there is so much internal strife in orgnizations, even black-on-black crime. Whites treat us as if we are not worthy and many internalize this and end up feeling about ourselves the way society treats us."

Many educators agree with Tollett.

McKenzie, for example, refused to accept the notion that poor kids don't test well. She supports the position that standardized tests contain bias, but says her only recourse was "to deal with it the way it is . . . they are not going to make up a new game for us." She pushed ahead on her belief that "you can teach kids to do anything."

That attitude has produced the high self esteem Tollett is talking about. Echoes McKenzie: "They have to believe that they can do it."