LAST WEEK, with an air of relief, District school officials announced that they would not have to stop 10,600 students from being promoted. aThat many students had failed to master the basic skills necessary to earn promotions after the first semester of the school year. There was the prospect that most of those first, second and third graders would have to be kept behind in June because they would not be able to make up the work they had failed and also master their second semester work. But acting superintendent James Guines says preliminary indications are that only 3,857 students, or about a third of the number that failed last semester, will not be promoted to the next grade.

This is good news on two counts. The first part of the good news is that about 6,000 students were able to improve on work they had earlier failed while mastering new skills in the second semester. The second part is that those students will not be seated in some classroom next year, staring dumbfounded at the chalkboard because they did not understand the work that was done the year before. This could be the beginning of the end of the social promotions cycle that has produced District high school graduates who cannot read or add. cAnd this could also be the end of the social promotions cycle in the elementary schools that has created infamously bad junior high schools, long the most troublesome part of the school system, where essentially illiterate children already indifferent to school begin the truancy, drug habits and other behavoir that stymies their education.

The only disturbing note in the happy end of social promotions is that Mr. Guines says 826 students who failed either math or reading -- but not both -- will be promoted. That could be an attempt to deflate the number of students who will have to be left behind. But it is very important that these children not be allowed to forget that they did not fully earn a promotion to the next grade.It is also important that the school system work with them to ensure that they catch up to their appropriate level of work as soon as possible. The whole cycle of trouble began, after all, when students who were not doing passing work in one subject or another were allowed to go on to the next grade with nothing more than a wink from school officials.

Next year, when the pupil promotions policy is extended to three higher grades, fourth, fifth and sixth, an even larger number of students can be expected to fail. They are the students who have been promoted through the first three grades without mastering their work. There is likely to be more pressure then for school officials to go easy on students as angry parents ask why their children are suddenly being left behind. Earlier this year, some school officials could be seen hesitating in their support of the plan when parents began to grumble about the failures. School officials will have to stand strong for the good of the students. Ending social promotions is the greatest hope the District schools have for immediate improvement. It is also the only way to guarantee that public school graduates have the basic skills necessary to get jobs. The school system deserves communitywide support as it extends the new pupil promotions policy.