A MONTH AGO, the message from acting school superintendent James Guines was that, although nearly 10,000 students lacked certain academic skills, they were not failures. Mr. Guines said the students who did not advance to the second semester of work in the first, second and third grades (half of all students in those grades) were simply in need of extra help. With special teaching and citizen tutorial plan and without extra money, the acting superintendent said students could be brought up to grade level by the end of the year.

Now the acting superintendent sees that the tutoring plan, for all its support, is still in the planning phase. And the word on the special teaching program is that it does not look to be anywhere near a sure success. Suddenly, the prospect of those same 10,000 students' not being promoted in June is very real. And equally real is the potential chill of angry parents shouting that their own children shouldn't be left behind.

So apparently fearing the implications of this outcome, Mr. Guines has abruptly changed the tone of his public statement. Now the puplil progress plan, which requires students to master basic skills before promotions, is "stupid and unnecessarily punitive toward students." And now Mr. Guines suggests that the plan be changed to do away with grade levels and begin elementary school "groups." The "groups" would include four grade levels and limit the thorny question of whether a student should be promoted or left behind to a one-time event every four years. This plan would also diffuse any parental anger at a large group of children's being left behind this year.

It is possible to extend the hours in a day by chasing the sun west. But eventually the day must end. So it goes with requiring that students learn to add, read and write before they are promoted. The schools can do away with all grade levels between kindergarten and fourth grade, eliminating three of four chances for a student to be left behind. But the day will come when the question must be answered: Does Johnny know how to read, write and add? When that day comes, be it sooner or later, a large number of children in the District schools are going to be left behind. That is the price to be paid (by them) for years of untended problems in the city's public schools. To delay in paying that price is game-playing. The only purpose it serves is temporarily to placate parents who would be angry if their childrenn failed. At the same time, this game-playing robs students, parents and teachers of the clear-cut opportunity to know where the student stands in his schooling now.

District schools have been subjected to game-playing of this sort in one manner of another for the past 10 years. The wreckage is on view today. Now that there is a system that says to teachers, teach, that says to students, learn, or face failure, the acting superintendent gets cold feet. With or without mr. Guines, the schools must continue with the program now in place and let students, parents and teachers know where they stand. An honest answer every year at promotion time will prove inspirational to students and teachers who aren't performing. That annual date with the truth will restore some lost integrity to the public schools. And it will hasten the day when employers don't have to watch District school graduates standing dumbfounded in the face of a simple question or looking blindly at words because they are unalbe to read. If mr. Guines is not the man to lead the schools during this time, then the school board should find someone who is up to the job.