Sometimes, John Jones just can't stand the ribbing he gets from his classmates. They joke, they laugh, they pester him, saying he'll never get anywhere, he'll always be held back. Where can he go, after all, when he can't read or add or subtract?

"Thing is, I know I can't do those things real well," said Jones, which is not his real name. "Look, man, they're in the same special classes I am. Sometimes I think they laugh at me 'cause they don't want to deal with themselves."

Jones, who reads and writes on a first-grade level, is one of 45 students in the English Social Studies Opportunities program (ESSO) at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Fifteen ESSO seniors will receive high school diplomas tomorrow.

Prior to 1970, Maryland state educations gave out different types of diplomas for different categories of students. There was a certificate of attendance for severly handicapped youths, and vocational, commercial, special education and general diplomas for others.

But in 1970, the key word was "objectives." If handicapped and slow-learning students achieved goals set for them by their teacher - even though the goals were lower than those set in regular classes - why shouldn't they receive the same high school diploma as others?

"It was a question of why . . . (a slow-learner) should have a stigma," says Lynn Jacobs, Maryland schools' special education director.

Diana Wollin, B-CC's ESSO department head, declares firmly that Jones has earned his diploma. "(Jones) has gone through four years of English, three social studies, two science and two math," she said. "He may not be on the same ability level as others in his grade, but he's finished his objectives. Why shouldn't he be rewarded?"

Wollin says students are referred to the ESSO program after the reviews of psychological data and test scores. Their backgrounds and intellectual abilities vary as greatly as the goals their teachers set for them.

"We remediate and strengthen the skills they already have," she said. "With (Jones), it sometimes consists of helping him learn punctuation, or newspaper ads or time . . . We aren't miracle workers."

At B-CC Jones participates in the only work-study program in the county for learning-disabled students. He is one of 25 ESSO students who earn money working at the National Institutes of Health, the National Naval Medical Center and other agencies in the area.

For four days a week, four hours a day, and $4.41 an hour, Jones cleans cages, feeds animals and weans guinea pigs at an NIH research lab.

Previously, he says, he tried applying for other jobs at area businesses but "I couldn't get past the application forms. I had to ask secretaries to fill them out for me."

Rosalie Ingram, assistant foreman of the research lab, interviewed Jones for his job last fall. "I was mainly looking for someone who had a willingness to work," she says. "You don't need any special education to work here. It's very manual."

Jones, meanwhile, stands next to a fence post outside the school and describes himself as a loner, Jones is socially normal. His only problem is he simply can't read, said teacher Brady Blade.

"I'm confident enough to stand on my own two feet," he says. "I can read prices and baseball scores and stuff like that. I know whihc buses go to Montgomery College and Montgomery Mall . . .

"Somtimes I feel hurt inside, like when I go apply for jobs and stuff. But I ain't got nothing to be ashamed of." CAPTION: Picture, Chuck Lane is a national merit scholar and member of the B-CC baseball team. By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post