Cultural bias used to be mean , The standarized test a real terror . Now both these monsters are tame as can be ; Was our fear of them always in error ? The fight has gone out of the norm-referenc'd beast . Please tell me, how did we do it ? Why we taught our dear children to pass the damned thing , And that is the way that we slew it .

I remember having a running battle, a few years back, on the subject of standardized tests. The scores were not merely unfair to black children, the superintendent kept trying to make me understand, but they were also meaningless.

"Norm-referenced tests do nothing to help us discover how to educate black children," Barbara Sizemore told me during one of our exchanges. "In fact, we waste money by giving the, and the only reason we do given them is so that we can have some way to sort winners from losers without admitting that we discriminate against certain people with regard to opportunity."

Wht triggered our little newspaper-column debate was the test scores in the local schools were on the decline. I thought the test results were trying to tell us we needed to do something about the way we were educating our children. Sizemore thought we only needed to change the way we were testing them.

Now, a couple of superintendents later, the statements out of the Presidential Building are practically rhapsodic on the subject of test scores. Acting superintendent James T. Guines, says one recent release, "is proud to share" the latest test results: "Student achievement on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills in Spring, 1981, continued in almost all cses to show improvement over previous years, thus bringing the citywide scores closer to the national norms."

Of course Guines is "proud to share" what has to be some of the best local news in years. Test scores, which bottomed out in the early 1970s, have been on an almost-uninterrupted upswing since 1977. Sixth-grade reading scores, which had averaged 5.6 (sixth month of the fifth grade) in 1971, plunged to about 4.4 in 1974. Math scores during the same period fell from 5.7 to 5.0. This spring, the sixth-grade scores wee 5.9 in reading and 6.4 in math. (The national norm is 6.8.)

Third-graders were exactly at the nationl norm in math and only three months behind in reading. Ninth-graders remained more than a full year behind in both reading (7.7) and math (8.0), but still were encouragingly ahead of last year's results (7.3 and 7.0) and spectacularly better than 1975, when they averaged 6.4 in reading and 6.6 in math.

Guines attributes the dramatic ninth-grade improvement to the initial phase of the Intensive Junior High School Instruction program, which will be fully implemented next year. Other school officials credit the Competency-Based Curriculum (introduced by Guines' predecessor Vincent Reed) for most of the improved scores.

But whether the credit goes to IJHSI or CBC or the more recent decision not to promote elementary pupils to the next grade until they have mastered the one they are in, the crucial change is in attitude and commitment. For a very long time, educators, particularly in the inner cities, have been motivated more by pity for children they see as disadvantaged, deprived and essentially hopeless, than by an honest belief that they can learn. They have always said they believed the children could learn, but their actions -- including social promotions, lowered expectations and attacks on standardized tests -- have indicated otherwise.

Now the official school policy is not to make excuses but to teach, and the measure of the policy's implementation is test scores. And the results may hold more encouragement than meets the eye. For the scores have continued to climb even in the face of increasing middle-class abandonment of the public schools.

The lesson being driven home is that, for all our excuses and finger-pointing and scapegoating, our teachers can teach and our children can learn. And while we've still got a long way to go, there's no longer any reason to doubt that we'll get there.