IN THE District of Columbia and in other large cities throughout the nation, huge numbers of minority students drop out of secondary schools, and many who do graduate are ill-equipped for college or the work force. Too often, it's said that little can be done to raise the achievement levels of these students. The debate then turns to the methods needed to rescue younger generations from a similar fate. But an educational program devised by the New York-based Macy Foundation, operating in 39 high schools in New York City, Alabama, Connecticut and Arizona, has achieved impressive results with such students.

More than 90 percent of the students in these schools are either black, Hispanic or native American. Many came from low-income, single-parent families, and teachers described them as having "significant deficiencies in basic skills."

The formula involved no magic wands. It included a demanding curriculum, with four years of English, math, science and social studies; a continuing four-year emphasis on reading, writing and speaking skills; and two years of a foreign language. Class sizes were smaller in the 9th and 10th grades, which also had an extended school day involving before and after school tutorial and guidance support. All focused on "providing a 'safety net' to ensure each student can succeed." Special summer school programs were also used, as were partnerships with local universities, which helped out with curriculum development and teaching techniques.

After nearly a decade of operation, the results have been remarkable. Macy students have been scoring at the 60th percentile or above on standardized tests and are receiving higher grades in math and science courses, despite more difficult course content. Some 90 percent are attending four-year colleges. That compares with an average college attendance rate, among blacks and Hispanics, of about 30 percent, and many of them are in two-year programs.

An extensive report on the Macy programs has now been compiled by a national education consulting group headed by someone who knows quite a bit about urban school systems -- former D.C. school superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie. "Much of the nation is grappling with how to increase student achievement, particularly for minority students," Mrs. McKenzie said. "Here is a well-founded model worthy and capable of replication." School officials in Baltimore have already expressed an interest in the program. Why not try it here in the District of Columbia?