DEPLORING the low standards of big-city high schools is easy, but not particularly helpful. The question is what to do about them. In 1967, a team of specialists from Columbia University published a detailed report on Washington's schools; it began with a warning that "education in the District is in deep and probably worsening trouble." It offered dozens of recommendations to reverse that decline. But few were ever put into effect. Instead, the city's schools experienced a long period of turmoil and contention from which they are only now emerging. The present state of deterioration at Eastern High School is currently described in the dismaying series of articles by Juan Williams in this newspaper.

This kind of trouble is not, certainly, uniques to Eastern High, or to schools in Washington. Mr. Williams's description of Eastern demands attention precisely because the same symptoms have appeared in a great many other schools, particularly the big ones, throughout the metropolitan area and throughout the country. One of the things that has gone wrong is the breakdown of any reliable system for reaching youngsters who can't read. It's too easy for teachers to avoid them by passing them. Closely related to that failure is the widespread impression that students will pass their courses and graduate no matter how many tests they fail, or how many clases they cut.

Over the past generation, American school systems have devoted enormous effort to the proposition that every child needs a full high school education. A low dropout rate has become one of the standard indicators of a good school. Teachers and school boards have worked diligently to hold the greatest possible number of students in the classroom until graduation. That commitment has brought incalculable benefit to the country - but, like any great social change, it has its other side. Along with benefit, it has brought a willingness to tolerate poor performance rather than to fail students or expel them.

That is why the idea of testing basic competence - and requiring passing scores for promotion and graduation - is gaining momentum throughout the country. The Richmond school system recently initiated this kind of testing, and the effect has been remarkable, At first, more than one-fourth of the city's students failed the test but, upon realizing that their diplomas depended on it, the youngsters buckled down and currently the failure rate is 6 percent. These tests are sometimes challenged by organizations representing blacks, and other minorities, on grounds that they are culturally biased. To pass the Richmond test requires the ability of the average ninth grader to fill out ajob application or read an automobile warranty. There's cultural bias, but it's the culture shared by just about everybody in this country who earns wages or who drives a car. It is a test of the survival skills that are basic in modern America. A school does nothing for the cause of equal opportunity, or for the students themselves, when it falsely certifies them as competent.

In Washington, the school board and Superintendent Vincent Reed are now preparing a program of competence testing. While it was to have gone into effect this fall, the process is proving difficult and the introduction has been postponed a year. But the school system is clearly on the right track and needs to lose no more time. Testing is not itself a remedy to poor learning, but it forces many kinds of action toward remedies. This city is manifestly not meeting its responsibilities to the students of Eastern High School. Competence tests are a first step toward an education that demands more of the high school students who lag - and in return provides far more to them.