I missed my guess. When it was revealed last month that half the city's first-, second- and third-graders had failed to master the skills necessary for promotion, I was pretty sure I knew what would happen.

I thought we'd have a modicum of blame-placing, a dash of explanation, several dollops of criticism of inadequate parents and then a half-baked campaign to get rid of the tests that brought us the bad news in the first place.

What has happened instead is that Acting Superintendent James Guines has called on Sterling Tucker to head a drive to recruit 1,000 volunteers to tutor the children.

It is such a sensible step that i'm astonished anyone thought of it. Its obvious premise is that the children who haven't learned all that they should have learned all that they should have learned can learn it. It accepts the principle that it is harmful to promote children to harder work when they haven't mastered the easier work.

And it also suggests that there is nothing wrong with tapping experienced people to do what needs to be done.

Tucker, who was chairman of the city council and a candidate for mayor before he served as an assistant secretary at HUD, was, before any of that, executive director of the Washington Urban League, with its highly acclaimed "Future for Jimmy" tutorial program.

Already there are those who suggest, archly, that the newest effort, dubbed Operation Rescue, is in fact a sort of Future for Sterling program, noting that Tucker is interested in making another run for mayor.

To which i say: so what? If he can do a good enough job in this unpaid volunteer effort to boost his political fortunes, then bully for him.

My worries go the other way. I remember what happened in Florida, for instance, when that state introduced minimum competency standards for high school graduation.

When the early results revealed that black juniors and seniors had learned significantly less than their white and Hispanic schoolmates, the civil rights leadership said it was unfair to punish the children (by denying them diplomas) for the failure of the schools to teach them adequately in the earlier grades.

So the state started its testing earlier and, in addition, set up remedical classes for those who didn't do well on the tests.

It seemed a sensible thing to do. But when it turned out that the remedial classes were heavily black (which, considering the initial test results, should have surprised no one), the civil rights leadership said it only proved that the whole point of minimum-competency testing was to segregate and humiliate black children.

Everybody was so concerned about the racial implications of the test results that nobody could focus on the tragic fact that children were bombing out and headed for the economic scrap heap, with or without diplomas.

That's the beauty of what Jim Guines is doing here. He sees his role not as preventing failure, by seeing to it that the children get what they need as early as possible.

I don't know how they'll work out the details of Operation Rescue: whether they'll get hung up on teaching credentials or make volunteers learn the jargon of the system's competency-based curiculum or require that all the tutoring be done at school during school hours (thereby making it impossible for many working people to participate).

But i do hope that Guines and Tucker will remember to call on the area's reservior of retired teachers, many of whom are nothing short of expert in teaching children read.

And i hope that special effort will be given to recruiting among the black professionals who seem to think that blaming the system is equivalent to doing something for the children.