Although his mother speaks to him mostly in Korean, she taught him how to read in English when he was only 4.

By the time he reached junior high, while other boys played after school, he usually studied or practiced the piano.

Last month Victor You, 17, whose parents come from Korea, graduated as valedictorian from the selective St. Albans School in Northwest Washington. He had the highest grades in his class, took four college-level courses, won the school's music award, and was a National Merit Scholarship finalist. This fall he is heading to Harvard University.

"My parents always taught us to excel so we would never be in the position of being bossed around," You said. "We know we are a minority in this country, and we have to do better than other Americans. . . . That's the only way we'll get ahead."

At Anacostia High School, where virually all students are black and poor in contrast to St. Albans, where most are white and well-to-do, this year's valedictorian is also Asian American, Chin Wah Lee, 17, who was born in Hong Kong.

"In Asia a scholar is revered." Lee said, "and my parents felt I should do well in school. That's the only way to get ahead. . . . It seems like a lot of students have a sense of apathy toward schoolwork. They don't seem to care. [but] when you first come over there is a need to prove you can succeed. People who are born here don't have that need anymore."

You and Lee -- their schools sharply different, their drive almost the same -- are part of a widespread pattern of Asian students doing exceptionally well both locally and across the country.

Even though Asians are a minority of less than 3 percent in the Washington area, Asian names cropped up often on this spring's lists of top-ranking local high school graduates -- Chen at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Chen at High Point High in Beltsville, Ogawa at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Layno, Tsao, Khong, Luu and Nguyen at Wakefield High in Arlington.

On standardized tests in Montgomery County, Asians scored higher than any racial group. Their composite scores last year were slightly above whites in every grade tested.

Nationally, in a major survey of high school students sponsored by the U.S. Education Department, Asians had far higher scores in mathematics than any other group, including whites, blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. Whites were the highest by a smaller margin in reading and vocabulary.

Overall, Asian seniors came out slightly ahead, even though, according to the survey, which was directed by University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman, about 58 percent of the Asian students were foreign born. About 14.5 percent were identified as limited English-speaking.

The study also showed that the Asian students did more homework and took more tough courses. Far more of their parents, it reported, expected them to go beyond college for advanced degrees.

"It's a classic story of a group making it through the educational system," said Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard and editor of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. "Asians have done well in California schools since the 1930s. Now they're in many more parts of the country, and they're doing well elsewhere too.

"They seem to have an orientation that's attuned to doing well in American schools. . . . They save. They devote a great deal of attention to their children. They do well."

Of the students admitted to Harvard's freshman class next fall, one of the toughest to get into in the nation, Asian Americans account for 8.9 percent. This is almost six times higher than the proportion of Asians in the American population, which was 1.5 percent in the 1980 census.

At the University of California at Berkeley, 20 percent of undergraduates are of Asian origin, while Asians account for 5.2 percent of California residents. To be eligible for Berkeley students must be in the top 12.5 percent of their high school class. A recent study showed that 39 percent of Asians graduating from California secondary schools did that well, compared with 16.5 percent of whites, 5 percent of blacks, and 4.7 percent of Hispanics.

On a more advanced level, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, Asians account for 6.6 percent of all scientists in the United States with doctoral degrees, including 15.5 percent of those in engineering and 9.3 percent in computer science.

"I wish I had a school full of Asian kids," said Anthony Hanley, the principal of T.C. Williams Senior High in Alexandria, where Asians make up 7 percent of enrollment but accounted for four of the top 12 students in last month's graduating class. "They're polite. They're hard workers. They're wonderful kids. . . .

"Oh, they're not all perfect always," Hanley continued. "But we've had almost no problems with discipline with them. A lot of the homes are poor. They left everything behind when they came here. But they have this incredible drive to succeed. They're very serious about their studies.And they have a very strong resepect for the teachers."

Hanely added that "there is a sense of a little jealously that these foreigners can just come into the school and after a while they're at the top of the class. It's resented a little. But these Asian kids, they're such workers. They work incredibly hard."

Although the hard work is obvious, exactly why many Asians work so hard in school is uncertain. So are the other reasons underlying their academic success. The main factors cited by historians and sociologists are similar to those given by the students themselves: the high value placed on scholarship in Asian societies, a strong family structure to transmit this value, and the history of discrimination against Asians in the United States, which has caused them to stress education as an open channel to high-status jobs and acceptance.

The same combination of factors is often given to explain the academic success of American Jews, who are also heavily represented on scholastic honors lists and in prestigious universities, said William Petersen, a retired University of California sociologist. Petersen, who wrote a major study of Japanese Americans, said the strong push by Asians to do well in schools now is "fairly comparable to the Jewish drive for excellence, particularly a generation or so ago when many Jews were immigrants and really pushed their kids to excel."

Indeed, a widespread Japanese stereotype with a considerable element of truth, Petersen said, is the kyoiku-mama -- the "education mama" who is strikingly similar to the stereotyped "Jewish mother," lavishing attention on her children, pushing and helping them to do well in school, and gaining much of her own statisfaction from their success.

"It's a great stereotype," said Harvard's Thernstrom. "And it usually is effective -- no matter who uses it."

Although it has lessened recently, discrimination against Asians in the United States often has been severe. On the West Coast, where Asians first settled as "coolie" laborers, farm workers, servants and laundrymen, there was considerable agitation against the "yellow peril," which led to Jim Crow-like laws, Thernstrom said. These served to limit voting, land-holding, and racial intermarriage by Asians. Often their housing was segregated and some communities placed them in segregated schools.

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were eplaced behind barbed wire in internment camps.

The racial prejudice has steeply declined since then, Thernstrom said, but like blacks, Asians remain a visibly distinct minority and most Asian students interviewed for this article recalled sometimes being taunted by other children, usually with the epithet "chink." In addition, Thernstrom said, many Asians have faced problems with English similar to those of many Hispanics.

Because of discrimination, Asians generally, have been placed with blacks, Hispanics and American Indians in affirmative action plans and other special programs for minorities.Yet, unlike the other groups whose test scores, graduation rates, and representation in tough academic programs all are substantially below white averages. Asians have done at least as well as whites in virtually all academic areas.

"It's absured that Orientals qualify for affirmative action," Thernstrom said, "but it makes the programs work" because Asians generally have strong records. Indeed, at Harvard, which boasts in a house organ that next fall's freshmen class has a "record high percentage (22.88) of minority students," slightly more Asian Americans were admitted than blacks even though there are seven times more blacks than Asians in the United States.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which as more than twice as many Asians as blacks, Asians are not included in the school's minority admissions programs. "Asians are not considered to be a minority," MIT news director Robert Byers said. "They are no underrepresented."

Several "minority fellowship programs," sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences, also exclude Asians on the same grounds.

"They don't need it," said one NSF administrator. "They're able to do it on their own. The other people need some more help to make it."

Although Asian Organizations have fought hard to keep Asians eligible for minority-preference programs, particularly for government contracts, several of the students interviewed said they did not want their race to be considered in admitting them to college. The added that they thought couting by race might hurt Asians because in proporation to their small numbers there are "too many" Asians in many good universities.

"The colleges sent me all this minority stuff and I felt insulted," said Teresa Chen, who graduated with a straight-A average from High Point Senior High and is going to Brown in the fall. "You get the feeling that they weren't interested in me because I'm me but because I'm a minority. . . . They treated me as if I was handicapped. Ite never occurred to me that I was handicapped because I was Chinese."

In fact, like many of the studetns interviewed, Chen said she though being Asian actually helped her do well in school. "My parents are very strict by American standards," she said, " and they really taught us to believe that education is the way to succeed in life. They're proud of the fact that we [Chinese] have been educated and taking tests for thousands of years" for admission to the mandarin class powerful civil servants.

While they are still a small minority, the number of Asians in the United States grew from 1.5 million to 3.5 million between 1970 and 1980, as the repeal of exclusionary immigration laws alllowed the entry of silled Asian workers, professionals and anticommunist refugees. Most of the newcomers were from Vietnam, China (the People's Republic of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong), Korea and the Phillippines.

In the Washington area the increase was even sharper -- from 20,115 in 1970 to 82,147 last year, though Asians still account for just 2.7 percent of the area's 3.1 million residents. Among local school systems, Fairfax has the most Asian students -- 6,453 last fall. But the highest proportion, 11.7 percent, was in Arlington, which has become a major settlement point for refugees from Vietnam and the rest of Indochina.

The D.C. public schools have fewer Asians than any of the major school systems in the suburbs -- just 638 or 0.6 percent -- but two of the city's 11 senior highs had Asian valedictorians, Ui Hyang Shields at Spingarn as well as Lee at Anacostia. There is a great range in the students' backgrounds -- from Akiko Ogawa, No. 2 in a class of 755 at T.C. Williams whose father is a computer expert from Japan, to Mai Khoi Nguyen, one of five Asian students to get top honors at Wakefield, the daughter of a low-ranking soldier who left Vietnam on a rickety boat three years ago.

Victory You, the valedictorian at St. Albans, said his father is an economist with the World Bank, his mother a chemist who gave up here career to raise two sons. When he was young, he recalled, his mother "would bake a cake every time I read a book to encourage me. I had to do well for her."

Chin Wah Lee, Anacostia's valedictorian, said both his parents work, his father as a cook in a Chinese restaurant, his mother as a dishwasher. Even though the family could clearly use the money, Lee said his parents did not want him to have a job after school. Instead, they encouraged him to take courses at George Washington University while he was still a high school senior which involved two round trips a day by bus and subway -- about three hours of commuting.

"They felt I should do well in school," Lee said, "and spend time studying, not working. . . . They see me as their future. They want me to get ahead."