SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT Floretta McKenzie's idea for a new system of promotions for the public schools comes at the wrong time and is wrongheaded. The District schools need to continue a tightly structured, back-to-basics plan to restore confidence in the schools after years of trouble. Even if this were the best of times, with confidence in the schools high, Mrs. McKenzie's proposal would be the stuff of wishful thinking.

The plan Mrs. McKenzie is considering would require students to attain promotional standards only in the third, sixth and ninth grades. There would still be a first grade, with students of the same age in that grade. But if a student were not up to the mark at the end of his first year, it would not be necessary for teachers to give him a failing grade and for the student to be left behind. Instead, the student who failed could enter the second grade, where teachers would try to bring him up to the second-grade level. Even if the student were still not up to the mark at the end of the second grade, he could advance to the third grade for more remedial help. Only at the end of third grade would he have to pass an inflexible test of his abilities, and either be promoted or be left behind.

The advantage of Mrs. McKenzie's plan is that it is intended to protect students from the emotional strain of repeated failures and to help students catch up on failed academic work without costly special classes or tutorials. The disadvantages, however, outweigh the good points. It may be true that the child is saved the ignomy of failing again and again, but it's also true that the child is unlikely to recognize that he is in serious academic trouble if he believes he is advancing through the grades alongside his peers. For too long District schools have let children and parents believe that everything is going well only to find, come graduation, that the child can't read, can't fill out a job application, can't count change.

It is a mistake to think that fewer students will fail if there are fewer hurdles to overcome. With the hurdles farther apart, the failures will simply come at greater intervals. District school students need regular testing and informative ratings so that students, parents and teachers--as well as principals and school administrators like Mrs. McKenzie-- know what is going on with each child and with the school system. Mrs. McKenzie would do well to keep the normal, grade-by-grade promotion procedure for the schools. Instead of weakening the student standards, she should be adding more checks on the quality of teachers' work. Those kinds of checks--for students and teachers--are what the District schools need to inspire confidence and produce capable graduates.