NOT TOO LONG AGO, I was reading some intriguing observations about the District of Columbia public schools.

One told of a "16-year-old junior high school boy" who was "unable to read a streetcar sign." Another remarked that students undoubtedly "enter the junior high school with a 3rd grade reading ability." In a third, a teacher complaining of student "promotion to the next grade . . . without regard to pupils' attainment of ability to read and understand."

These may seem like very familiar criticisms -- except that they are not attacks on today's schools. They are observations on the Washington public schools of the 1930s and 1940s, the days before desegregation and white flight and all the bad things that are supposed to have happened since.

It's useful to recall those faded commentaries today for several reasons. One, of course, is simply to dismiss misguided notions about the "good old days" in the schools; rarely were the days as good as nostalgic adults like to think, and often they were awful. Washington's school system has been struggling with serious problems for most of its history.

More intriguing, though, is the fact that the criticisms of the '20s, '30s and '40s scarcely ever received public attention. The 16-year-old who couldn't read a sign in 1948 was described in an obscure teachers' journal, not on the front page of the newspaper, so his plight did not cause the kind of outcry that accompanied a similar report in The Washington Post 30 years later.

Before desegregation, in fact, not a single study of the D.C. schools judged their success by student achievement. In 1928, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Efficiency looked at everything in the D.C. schools from teacher salaries to to toilets. Everything, that is, except what students learned. It stated unabasheldy that "no attempt was made either to rate the teachers at work or to measure results as shown by the accomplishment of children."

Ten years later, FDR's Advisory Committee on Education never mentioned student achievement in its report on D.C. schools. In 1949, a 1,000- page survey subordinated student achievement to buildings, budgets and business services. Although it did note briefly, in a few pages, that junior high students were significantly behind national norms in language skills and math, that fact was ignored by press and public.

Only teachers, in their journals and in school system reports, expressed concern about student incompetence. In 1944, after analyzing the latest test results, for example, a school official complained that "we have with us a problem of pupils inadequately prepared to meet the everyday problems of life, so far as the use of simple arithmetic is concerned."

Desegregation instantly changed the public's focus. As one of the first dual systems to desegregate in 1954, and the only one directly under the control of Congress, Washington's schools found themselves scrutinized by the watchful eye of the national press and under attack by segregationists -- on student achievement grounds. Rep. James Davis of Georgia, for example, chaired a series of notorious hearings, with his final report citing test data which he claimed showed "a wide disparity in mental ability between white and Negro students."

The schools soon began experiencing a huge and rapid increase in total enrollments, with poorer blacks pouring in as middle-class whites exited, factors that would have caused great difficulties in any event. Atop of serious achievement problems inherited from the days of segregation -- to say little of inadequate budgets and facilities and an increasingly divided community -- the schools' reputation plummetted.

By 1967 a Post editorial summed up the conventional wisdom: "The collapse of public education in Washington is now evident."

That same year the Passow Report, another weighty study, evaluated every aspect of the system -- judging them in terms of student learning. Its first major finding was that the schools demonstrated "a low level of scholastic achievement as measured by performance on standardized tests," not terribly different from what schools officials had said among themselves in the 1940s.

Not suprisingly, then, the idea gained currency that private schools offered the middle class an appealing alternative to the problem-ridden public schools. In 1966, for example, the Post reported a "trend" to private schools laced with quotations from parents insisting that the public schools were not what they used to be.

In fact, as a percentage of all school-age children in the District, nonpublic school enrollments declined steadily after desegregation, from 15.3 percent in 1953 to 9 percent in 1969. In actual numbers, there were 1,500 fewer District school children attending nonpublic schools in 1969 than in 1953. Since 1969, the percentage has risen gradually, but it has not surpassed the 1953 level.

The media also have perpetuated the negative image of the public schools by limiting coverage of private schools to stories about enrollment trends and the lengths parents will go to to get their children into the "right" private school. The press thereby accepts uncritrically the notion that private schools are in fact all they claim to be and that parents think they are.

For example, although instances of vandalism in public schools receive extensive attention, two major instances of vandalism by students at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School last year went entirely unreported in the media.

The public schools of this city bore the brunt of the struggle for racial equality in our society. They were reluctant agents of change at best, and there is much to criticize in the way the schools have performed in recent decades. But we must realize that as a result of the upheavals of the civil rights movement, we now expect much more of our schools than we ever did before.

It is fine for us to measure our schools against an ideal of what they might be. But let's stop measuring them against an illusion of what we think they once were, or against an image of idyllic private schools that do not exist.