WHEN THE UPWARD BOUND program for impoverished high school students was created 12 years ago as a part of the War on Poverty, one of its primary goals was to transform slum high schools by stimulating intellectually a special group of their students. It was hoped that the chosen few, sparked by the challenge and attention, would then become catalysts for raising their schools' and fellow students' aspirations and performance. A decade's experience shows the concept to have been unrealistic. But if the $44-million-a-year program has had little catalytic effect on slum high schools, it has provided a way up for some 200,000 poor high school students who were the targets of its special attention.

That's the conclusion of a study of nearly 4,000 former Upward Bound students undertaken for the Office of Education by an independent research group. It found that when compared with their high school counterparts who didn't participate in the program, the Upward Bound students 1) entered some form of post-secondary education at significantly higher rates, 2) were more likely to enter four-year colleges and universities, 3) remained in college in about the same proportion as the general college population and 4) expressed greater interest in furthering their education beyond undergraduate work. The study also found the former Upward Bound students to be more aggressive in applying for financial aid and more discerning about the deficiencies of their high school preparation.

There is one big gap in the information provided: The study does not address the effect participation in Upward Bound has on the quality of students' academic performance in both high school and college. That will come later. Still, the evidence acquired so far suggests that at least the nation's 333 Upward Bound programs are working well for the students who are getting the concentrated attention. These students, who are likely to come from the most unpromising backgrounds, seem to be gaining the desire, determination and intellectual wherewithal to improve themselves and become productive members of society. For most of the young people who've participated in since 1965, Upward Bound has been not merely a program but a direction they've chosen.