THE SCHOOL-by-school Stanford 9 achievement test results released this week should not be read as a sign of blanket failure in the D.C. public school system. True, the results show most students still scoring below where they should be in reading and math. And the geographic and racial divides that mark the city are still reflected in the tally -- with most of the schools scoring at or above grade level located in the more affluent, majority-white areas west of Rock Creek Park. The real significance of the scores, however, can be found elsewhere. In the midst of some grim news, the results also show an upward movement -- albeit painstakingly slow -- of schools from the lowest grade levels where most have been languishing.

In addition to climbing off rock bottom, some low-scoring schools have also increased their rate of students scoring at the proficient level. But most schools still fall short of posting advanced scores. That stark finding should remind school administrators, teachers, parents and public school supporters that while there are signs of progress, the city's public schools have a long way to go before they can claim excellence. The challenge for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the rest of her team is to stay on course and not be distracted by the daily political skirmishes and potshots that come with the running of a major urban school system. Improving academic achievement must remain the superintendent's overarching goal.

School officials, especially principals, faculty and parent groups must pursue their reform agenda with a sense of urgency. The recently released results of charter school enrollment ought to provide an additional incentive to get moving. As the sharp increase in charter school enrollment indicates, District parents and students are voting on the performance of the regular public school system with their feet. To ask parents and students to wait until the public school system and those responsible for its governance get their act together is to ask too much. The school system may be on the right track, but the pace of school improvements must quicken.