How do we challenge a nationally recognized school system to reach beyond excellence for the '80s to excellence for the year 2000? That is the challenge faced by the Fairfax County School Board at a time when much of the rest of the nation is being admonished to scramble above the rising tide of mediocrity.

The evidence of Fairfax County public schools' present excellence is staggering. The average composite score for our students on the national Science Research Associates Test was 77 this past spring. That means that all our average students tested in the top 23 percent of the country. Approximately 34 percent of all students tested scored in the top 15 percent of the nation. Again, going counter to national trends, Fairfax County students performed best in mathematics, with almost half ranking in the top 15 percent of the country.

Also, nearly half of Virginia's National Merit Semifinalists come from Fairfax County public schools. Eighty-four percent of our high school graduates go on to college; in fact, most of the prestigious universities come to us to recruit. Even with such high standards, our dropout rate is a very low 1.9 percent.

The standard course offerings in Fairfax County include 17 advanced placement courses; general math through advanced calculus and functions; computer science; five years of several foreign languages; advanced chemistry, physics and biology; interdisciplinary English and history; as well as a broad range of academic, vocational and fine arts electives. At the senior level one out of every four students is enrolled in at least one advanced placement college course.

These extraordinary successes have been achieved at the same time that opportunities for education have been extended to all our children: non-English-speaking, handicapped and gifted. In spite of budget constraints we have developed and defended programs that will meet students where they are and challenge them to reach for the best in themselves.

For instance, we created English-as-a-second-language programs for those with little or no knowledge of English and struggled successfully with the federal government to gain approval of our approach. The waves of immigrants who have come to America because they believe in a dream of individual freedom must be afforded the full opportunities of this great land. This means knowledge of our primary language--English. The names on our honor rolls are testament to the success of our program.

Over the last decade Fairfax County public schools have developed programs for almost every type of handicapping condition. Students who graduated from high school this year were the first group to receive the benefits of special education programs from time of entrance into the school system. Children who once remained outside the educational system are being given opportunities for fuller and more productive lives.

Another group, the academically gifted, has presented different challenges. With the addition of a program for the gifted in the high school, Fairfax will be offering full-time specialized classes for these children from grade 3 through grade 12.

The public school system is a reflection of the expectations of the community it serves. Fairfax County parents, taxpayers and businesses demand excellence. Hundreds of our residents serve on active advisory committees. In addition, more than a million volunteer hours were donated directly to our schools last year. The principal challenge to the county school board is to keep pace with the demands of our residents and to improve further this extraordinary school system.

The students who enter kindergarten this fall will graduate from college in the year 2000; they will guide this country for the first half of the 21st century. Perhaps the largest issue facing educators is how to prepare our students for a future we cannot see. No longer is it enough to provide a core of knowledge, a set of facts. Today's students will have to learn how to make sense out of an avalanche of information. Our schools must teach the process of learning: the ability to think critically, to reason, to synthesize, and to continue to learn as new knowledge is created and to adapt old ideas to new situations.

To prepare our students, the school board is emphasizing the integration of critical- thinking and study skills into all disciplines, K-12, with primary emphasis on improving analytical and communicative skills, including writing. Further, we are establishing a K-12 computer literacy program; our students will learn how to use the computer to solve problems. Overall, we want to ensure that students have good grounding in basic curriculum and also have the opportunity to explore careers and develop talents in the fine arts.

We know, of course, that curriculum improvement is meaningless without good teachers. We need teachers who can lead children beyond rote memorization to true thinking, so we are developing an incentive program that will attract good teachers and will enable excellent teachers to move up without moving out of the classroom.

Most of all, the school board recognizes that education is no longer just the business of educators. The magnitude and complexity of the challenges that face public education require educators to seek partners in the county to assist in planning and putting into effect new solutions. We are working already with our business people, with health professionals and with our colleges to meet tomorrow's needs of today's youth.

The Fairfax County public schools are a national example of excellence. In the years to come we will reach beyond excellence to help our children become the leaders of the 21st century.