NEWS OF THE District schools' holding back about half of their students in the first through third grades may seem discouraging. But take a second look. This could be the first sign of good things to come. The school system is finally helping students at the point when they start to have trouble. No longer are children allowed to ascend the academic ladder, climbing from grade to grade on the frustration and dislike of books and numbers that come with not understanding what is going on in the classroom. And parents and students are no longer allowed to nurse the illusion that all is going well in school until that sad day when the teen-ager can't fill out a job application.

What is disturbing, of course, if that the problem is so deep. Few educators thought that there would be such widespread trouble at so low a grade level. It is important to note in this connection that the decision to separate out students who were not learning the basis was not made on the basis of one test or a final exam. Students were held back on the basis of their work all semester long, which included several tests at every juncture.

the question now is what kind of help will be given those who were held back. With the high number of students in need of assistance, the school system's budget is rather strain to provide sufficient help. A large number of teachers and extra classes will be needed. Large classes are probably not the best idea when it comes to remedial work, but the school system may have no choice at the moment. In future budgets, more money will have to be made available to help these particular students. Meanwhile, each school in the city is preparing its own plan for dealing with students who did not learn the basis last semester.

At the end of the school year, no matter how much help has been given, the school system will probably have to fail some children who still do not measure up. That could cause an even greater uproar if the number of those failing is near the number now needing help. Next year, when promotional standards are put on the fourth through sixth grades, it can be expected that a similarly high or even higher number of students will be found to have problems (not yet uncovered) with basic skills.

The city schools should plan for that eventuality now by preparing a plan for handling the large number of students who may require special assistance.