WHAT DO TOO MANY students of the District's public schools wind up doing when they move out into the world of work? The sad answer: less than they thought or hoped -- thanks in no small part to a hoax that came into vogue in the 1960s under th gobbledygookish name of "social promotions." This is the practice of moving children though the grades just because they get older. When they have served enough time, they are declared "graduates" and are sent away, pitifully unequipped for anything more than the lowest-paying jobs that do not rely on reading, adding or subtracting. What kind of "promotion" is that?

It's no promotion at all -- and now, because of the initiative of people in Anacostia, the city is acting to stop the practice. A good two years ago, the Anacostia Community School Board, an advisory group made up mostly of parents, teamed up with D.C. school board member (now president) R. Calvin Lockridge and local school principals to develop standards for promotions and graduations. While the rest of the school system toyed with the concept, the Anacostias moved on their own to an agreement.

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

Even before citywide minimum standards started receiving serious consideration, the schools in Anacostia went ahead and informally adopted parts of their proposal. Now School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed and the D.C. board have a plan to evaluate students citywide at the end of the first half of every school year; for example, first-grade students who have mastered enough skills would be moved to "grade 1B," while others would remain in a "1A" group for certain remedial work. Teachers would do the evaluating, and tests already being given would provide some indication of the accuracy of their assessments.

This move meshes perfectly with Dr. Reed's other enormously important proposals to improve the quality of education offered her through more required courses in high school and a new emphasis on rigorous, college-preparatory schooling for those who choose it and can keep up. All of these efforts deserve the strongest encouragement residents can give.