HOW CAN state level education officials work with local school districts to develop partnerships? One answer can be found in Maryland, in the beginnings of an effort that will eventually involve individual ratings of the state's 1,201 public schools and a rare state accreditation program. The first phase of that plan was unveiled this week by state superintendent Joseph L. Shilling, in the form of high achievement and educational standards that Maryland's 24 school districts will be expected to meet by 1995.

The criteria, released in the form of a "report card" on individual school districts, involve ratings of "standard not yet met," "satisfactory" or "excellent" on everything from performance on reading and math competency tests to an assessment of dropout rates around the state. The good news is that this is the kind of program that could eventually show lagging school systems how more effective districts manage to overcome similar problems. The bad news is that even the most successful public schools -- including those in Howard and Montgomery counties -- were only satisfactory at best, and many more failed to reach even that standard.

Students in half of the 24 school districts failed to meet the standard of a 95 percent pass rate in their first attempt on reading competency tests. Only four districts had dropout rates of 3 percent or lower. Just one school system, Worcester County's, met the 94 percent attendance rate standard for middle and senior high schools. Statewide, only two standards have already been reached in terms of attendance and promotion rates in the elementary schools.

Reaction around the state has been mixed. Some local school officials contend that the standards are unrealistically high and that the program fails to break new ground. We don't agree.

"It's a new way of doing business," according to state superintendent Shilling, who adds that the state intends to follow up on its efforts by advising less successful school districts on ways to improve. That, it seems, ought to be the crux of any state level effort to assess the effectiveness of public education. What one school system does to meet such goals can be duplicated, and the entire enterprise might force an end to isolation and mediocrity. Even if these standards are lofty, school systems will be inspired to improve, and the end result will be students who are better educated and better prepared for college and the work force.