A teacher stands before a classroom of D.C. students and says: "Say 'How are you today?' Did it sound like 'Howr youday?' " For some students, the answer is yes. The teacher continues: "Say 'Do you understand?' Did it sound like 'Dyunnerstan?' " Unfortunately, this is neither a third-grade phonics course nor a junior high school grammar lesson. These are high school seniors in the District's public school system, being readied to enter the job market.

How important is this effort? Important enough to deserve to begin earlier than a student's senior year. Far too many students in the city's high schools still graduate with reading and math skills that are two to three years below their grade level. They are genuinely shocked to find that they don't have the learning to compete for good jobs. Some of the same students waltz through high school, attempting to spread their irresponsibility by openly disparaging the most studious of their peers. Too often, the criticism succeeds. Among blacks, it's a problem throughout the country.

The U.S. Department of Education uses a series of tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as one of its barometers of acquired learning. These tests are usually given to youths aged 9, 13 and 15. A particular version, in 1985, included young adults, aged 21 to 25. They do not test raw academic knowledge, but the ability to apply learning skills to common tasks. Lumping people together as ethnic groups does ignore high achievement by several persons within a group, but that does not dilute the point here.

To obtain a score of 350 or higher (that is, the best scores) on the "prose comprehension" test, one must be able to identify the main argument in something such as an editorial. Only 3.1 percent of the blacks scored that high. Four times as many Hispanics and eight times as many whites achieved the highest scores. In the "document literacy" test, one must be able to determine a route by using a map. Only 2.5 percent of the blacks obtained that score, but more than twice as many Hispanics and 12 times as many whites scored at least a 350. In the "quantitative literacy" test, one must apply arithmetic knowledge to determine, for example, a 15 percent tip at a restaurant. Only 2.4 percent of the blacks hit the high score. Four times as many Hispanics and 11 times as many whites did the same.

These are frightening statistics. They indicate a dangerous regression from the time when a good education was seen as the best source of advancement for blacks. They also reveal a lack of the very skills that are needed in any interview for a good job: knowledge of and opinions on current events; an ability to use a map or a bus schedule to get to an interview on time.

There are model academic schools for gifted and talented black students, such as Banneker High School in the District. But more must be done for the good and the gifted students who remain in other schools. They are involved in an important struggle. Consider one named Kenneth. He was an 'A' student, but suddenly refused to give oral reports or do his homework. He became moody and inexplicably withdrawn. Teachers eventually discovered that he had been trying to "live down" to the level of his peers, who had ridiculed him because of his intellectual achievements.

Kenneth and other promising students face such negative pressures in school every day. They also face them on the outside, in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods where "success" can be measured by one's income in drug deals, where well-meaning parents can be too burdened, too depressed and too jaded to spur their children on in school. That is part of the reason some gifted black students never reach their full potential. It partially explains why some graduating high school seniors need help in the most rudimentary forms of enunciation.

The same expectations that apply at a school such as Banneker should be applied in every high school. Those good and gifted students also need more allies. The effects of a once-a-year "career day" are lost within hours. If black professionals -- or whites -- did more by regularly giving a small block of time from their jobs to visit schools or individual pupils, they could form a meaningful and crucial alliance with serious students. If any group should be pressured to change on a daily basis, it ought to be the students who are wasting their and our precious time.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.