That was my applause you heard last spring when D.C. School Superintendent Vincent Reed delivered himself of this jolt of common sense: Elementary school youngsters would no longer be promoted more or less automatically, but would be required to demonstrate something approaching grade-level competency in math and reading before moving on to the next grade.

I thought it was just plain sensible, and on a number of counts. First, I thought it made sense not to push children into fractions, for instance, before they had learned to deal competently with whole numbers.

I also thought it made sense to make clear to the children that their schoolwork is taken seriously.

And most of all, I thought it made sense in light of the growing trend toward competency examinations for high school graduation. Competency exams administered at the end of high school frequently amount to punishing students for the failure of their schools. But if the competency requirement begins in elementary school, there is time to repair the failure before it becomes permanent.

I thought it made great good sense, and I said so.

School board member Frank Smith Jr. tells me I was mistaken.

"I don't believe anyone thinks there is much value in holding a child back to repeat the same class with the same teacher year after year," said Smith, who cast the sole negative vote on the elementary competency proposal.

"What you have in mind, and what I support, is some kind of a program of remediation. You have a concept of special help being offered on an intensive, perhaps one-to-one basis.

"That concept may make sense in terms of what you and I remember from our own school days, but it doesn't square with the reality of what is happening in many of our local schools.

"I constantly walk into classrooms where teachers tell me that only five or six of their 25 students are reading and doing math up to grade level. If you are talking about holding back those 20 students, it would probably wreck the system."

Smith is correct on this point: I was thinking of classes where most youngsters achieve at more or less normal rates and where it makes sense to provide special help for those few who need it.

Remediating whole (or nearly whole) classes is a very different proposition, as Smith points out. So what would he do?

"We must train our teachers to reach deeply into every child, searching for their talent. They must then mold, stretch, massage, stimulate and otherwise encourage that talent to its highest." Then:

"After the child has done the very best he can do, he should be promoted. He should not be held back to pout, suffer and otherwise poison the atmosphere for all those children struggling hard to learn under already difficult circumstances. Besides, giving this child a diploma will make him feel good and may indeed be the most humane thing this society will ever do for him. A diploma for this child helps his sense of identity and does nothing to harm society."

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Frank Smith, who cares about children, would never acknowledge it, but what he is proposing is to write off large numbers of children as essentially hopeless.

If you think of schooling as analogous to the manufacturing process, you might agree that it makes no sense to do your quality control only at the end of the assembly line -- the high school competency exam.

But if you discover early on in the process (elementary school) that you've got a preponderance of defective units on your hands, you'd damn well better get busy finding out what went wrong and figuring out how to fix it.

Hanging certificates of competency on duds, human or mechanical, is neither "humane," honest nor sensible.

It doesn't make anybody feel good, at least not for long. The inevitable outcome, once it becomes public knowledge that your certification doesn't mean anything, is that nobody will want your products -- even the few that do in fact meet reasonable standards.

The compassionate act, Frank Smith needs to understand, is not to dish out meaningless diplomas but to see to it that our children learn.