It's taken top educators all too to figure it out, but gradually the experts are recognizing the obvious wrongs of "social promotions" - automatically moving children through the grades just because they get older. School officials around the country are discovering that the end product of their automatic promotions is likely to be a pitifully unequipped "graduate." In the District of Columbia, the recognition has been slow, however. That's why it was heartening to learn through a report in this newspaper yesterday that a determined Anacostia school community is setting the pace here by going ahead and instituting its own set of standards for student promotions and graduations.

As far as the whole city is concerned, the old push-them-along rules of the 1960s have remained in force - requirements that elementary school youngsters be kept back in grade no more than once and that children be sent to junior high schools six months after their 13th birthday, regardless of what they have learned. There was some hope of change in July 1977, when the school board voted unanimously to impose minimum-achievement standards for grade-to-grade promotions as well as graduations. But there haven't been any regulations issued to enforce those standards. Superintendent Vincent E. Reed says there's a committee looking into the matter, but he doesn't know when anything might come of.

So Anacostians have moved on their own. This spring, students at 31 schools in Anacostia will be required to pass standard tests to be promoted or to graduate from senior high school. The standards, which will get tougher over the next four years, have been developed by local school principals and enthusiastically endorsed by the Anacostia Community School Board, an elected advisory group made up mostly of parents, and the area's representative on the D.C. school board, R. Calvin Lockridge.

Under the new program, kindergarden youngsters will have to score average or above on a nationwide test to be promoted to first grade, and will have to master at least 70 percent of the reading and math skills on a citywide curriculum checklist. Students also will have to be able to state their names, addresses and telephone numbers, In the first through eighth grades, students will be required to get specific passing scores on reading and math tests; in high schools, they will have to pass a nationwide test of "everyday skills," such as reading telephone books, figuring out sales taxes, filing out job applications, balancing checkbooks and following street directions.

Isn't this precisely what schools should be doing? Of course, there will be complaints when students are held back. And some critics will say that the system is unfair in that only Anacostia students will be affected. But it is just the other way around - for the real unfairness is to those other students who are misled by regular promotions and graduations without regard to achievement. The Anacostia community deserves great credit for tackling a serious and sensitive problem with a no-nonsense program.