IN 1985, Washington's suburban school districts released standardized exam results that showed that black students, as a group, scored far lower than white students. The disparity in performance was widest -- and thought by some to be the most difficult to improve -- in the Alexandria public schools. But the impressive academic progress of individual schools with high minority enrollments throughout the area have made an important point. Higher expectations and plain hard work get results, regardless of socioeconomic disadvantages. In Alexandria, the difference between the poverty and relative wealth of black and white students is most acute. Most of the blacks are poor, and that makes a recent sign of their academic progress all the more welcome and significant.

Two years ago, Alexandria's black students as a group scored as much as 48 percentile points below their white counterparts in the Science Research Associates exam, which measures reading, language and mathematics skills. This year, the average black student made more progress than whites on the test. Perhaps more important, black students in each of the city's elementary schools scored above the national norm for the first time. The results are meaningful because other school districts too often release figures that show, for example, how last year's eighth-grade students compare with current eighth graders. Alexandria tracks scores to compare the performance of the same students from year to year. The improvement was highest at the Cora Kelly magnet school, where third graders, for example, scored 18 points higher than they did as second graders. Cora Kelly's enrollment is 80 percent black.

If students performed poorly on a subject in the test, said Principal Barbara Blackwell, mastery of that subject was emphasized in class. Though the requirements for honor-roll status were toughened, the number of students who earned it did not drop significantly. Teachers were told to push black students who showed potential -- and not necessarily the required grades -- into classes for the gifted. Many performed well, and that was something teachers needed to see. The city's test scores are another illustration of the fact that important academic gains are being made by the kinds of kids many had recklessly written off in the past.