THE PRESIDENT of the College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was moved this year by the continuing fall in national verbal SAT scores to lament that "reading is in danger of becoming a lost art" among American students. The scores are becoming an all too dependably gloomy indicator within the narrow slice of the American educational scene that they reflect -- college-bound seniors who take the optional test as part of college admissions requirements. The SAT measures only certain skills; it reflects changes in school quality only over many years; and, historically, it has also reflected income differences from locality to locality and from school to school, which, of course, also have a great impact on those schools' quality. That unfortunate pattern is borne out in this region, where the more affluent suburbs have higher average scores and the District's public schools tend to trail.

In the 1989-90 results, the District's scores went up for the second straight year. But for the second straight year, that increase came entirely from private schools, while the public school system saw declines despite concerted efforts to teach these skills -- including special after-school sessions for the strongest students. (We note, again, that The Washington Post Co. owns a coaching service, Stanley Kaplan, which prepares students for the SAT.)

Nationally, the math score stayed static at an unimpressive 476 points on the 200-to-800 scale, and the verbal test dropped three points to 424. That combined score of 900 is still well above the District's 850 -- or the D.C. public schools' 707 -- but it is pretty low for a nation that has been talking about school reform, and loudly, since the current crop of test-takers was in sixth grade.

You can hear frustration at this continued slump in the statement released with the scores by College Board President Donald Stewart. He pointed to another, more broad-based study -- done under auspices of the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- that asked students how much time they spent on reading every day (more than half said 10 pages or fewer) and how much time they spent every day watching TV or music videos (more than half said at least three hours). "Maybe we ought to give a video SAT," a disgruntled Virginia schools official told a Post reporter.

You can hear the same frustration in the tendency of national spokesmen to abandon the slow, even imperceptible work being done system-by-system and school-by-school and to turn instead to grandiose schemes for overhauling the way education is structured. But broad issues of school governance aren't what show up on tests like the NAEP and the SAT. What shows up there is skills -- ordinary, straightforward, old-fashioned -- and if the more affluent schools are the ones that succeed at teaching those skills, this at least shows it can be done. Everyone has been saying since 1983 that it's going to be a long, slow process. The lack of results is no excuse for not following through now that the going's gotten tough.