TO CHARACTERIZE the student achievement results recently released by the D.C. public schools as portraying a good news-bad news school system fails to capture the magnitude of the problem. Yes, the good news is fairly positive: The percentage of elementary school students scoring at the proficient level in reading increased from 46 percent in 2003-04 to 50 percent in the recently completed 2004-05 school year, and from 56 percent in mathematics in 2003-04 to 58 percent in 2004-05. The bad news, however, is very bad.

Secondary students -- the generation of youth that will soon make the transition to adulthood -- slipped in reading proficiency from 31 percent in 2003-04 to 30 percent in 2004-05. And the decline in proficiency was larger in mathematics, falling from 37 percent in 2003-04 to 33 percent in 2004-05. Viewed another way, most of the students who will graduate from D.C. high schools in the next few years are failing to read or do math at their grade levels. Unless drastic changes take place, D.C. public schools will soon send these young men and women unprepared into a world where the ability to read is essential to learning and where basic math skills are necessary for routine computations. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey may have time to develop programs that keep elementary school students moving in the right direction. But the situation confronting students at the secondary level is critical. They soon will be leaving school behind. How behind will they be?

We understand the need for the school system to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act by issuing report cards that include reading and mathematics achievement data broken down by racial and ethnic groups, economic status and gender. But there is more to the exercise than the simple release of report cards and closing achievement gaps between racial or economic groups. The overriding goal must be the improvement in math and reading proficiency levels of all students. As the test results suggest, the District's senior high schools need improvement most of all. And as the calendar suggests, the school system has no time to spare.