Reliable report cards on Washington's public schools have arrived--and the news is good. For the fifth year in a row, reading and math scores show an overall improvement and, best of all, for the first time since the schools began extensive testing, third graders have achieved national norms on standardized reading, math and science tests. While there is room for even greater strides, there is reason here for applause and hope, because the schools do seem to be on the move.

For so many painful years, the reports were grim, and the outlook little better, as math and reading sample testing showed low student achievement. Unfortunately, that damage is still evident in the scores of the older children. While there has been some improvement, students in the sixth, ninth and eleventh grades still lag behind national norms by anywhere from two months to nearly three years. And with the initial accent necessarily on basic math and English recently, the gaps between D.C. students and their national counterparts are still generally wider in science and social studies. Here again, though, third graders have exceeded national norms in science.

Certainly credit must go to School Superintendent Floretta McKenzie and her predecessor, Vincent E. Reed, for keeping the accent on fundamentals, and for installing a teaching system that monitors as well as aids teachers. An important change in promotion policy also has contributed to the progress. Mid-term testing and special tutoring for students failing in certain skills--instead of routine by- the-calendar promotions to the next grade--have paid off.

So have good teachers and strong principals, because the top scores are not limited to any particular racial or income group. Good scores are spread across economic, ethnic and racial lines--indicating that leadership and spirit in each school are ingredients of an atmosphere where good things can happen in the classrooms.

There is still sadness and challenge in those scores of the older school children, whose educational shortchanging over the years threatens to limit them markedly through adulthood. But here, too, there is some hope, because scores at the Banneker Academic High School and at the small, alternative School Without Walls for college-bound students both achieved the highest scores among the high schools.

There is one other correlation less easily proved but nevertheless apparent: the pace of student academic progress does seem to increase in proportion to the seriousness of school board members in addressing education rather than each other. Silence may not be golden, but softer words and lower profiles at board meetings have surely been valuable. Coupled with equitable budgets and teachers who care enough to deliver their best, the public schools of Washington can continue to offer better opportunities to their children.