THE RISE in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores this year is genuinely good news. The SATs are an important indicator, and statistically about as reliable as any data we've got. We know enough about the students who take these tests and about the tests themselves to be certain that a rise like the one Post reporter Lawrence Feinberg described, from a total of 890 on verbal and math tests last year to 893 now, is significant. This is all the more true because it is the first time since 1963 that SAT scores have risen; what we are seeing is a turnaround, the end of a downward trend.

Such things do not happen for a single reason. But they do not happen by accident either. And they are not the result of a single year's efforts; they represent a lot of things happening over a period of time. One reason for the rise in test scores is that the atmosphere in schools in recent years has become more businesslike; this observation admittedly comes from anecdotal evidence, but enough to make it seem to us pretty clear. Certainly there is less euphoric experimentation in curriculum; we do not see the proliferation of science fiction and filmmaking courses whose prevalence in schools coincided with drops in their students' test scores in the early 1970s. More students today are taking language and math courses, and both students and parents, in economically uncertain times, are more nervous and thus more determined that real learning take place.

Finally, the rise in test scores is something for which official Washington can take very little credit. There is no large public concern over which the federal government has less influence than education. This improvement is the sum total of a thousand incremental changes -- changes inspired mostly by parents and teachers concerned about something that is very concrete and important to them. This is social change coming from the grass roots up, not from the much-ballyhooed Department of Education down.

The rise in test scores, then, is not only a reliable sign that young Americans are learning more of what they need to know to be productive citizens; it is also a clear sign that the ideas that guide our culture are moving away from the frivolities that captivated the rebellious adolescents of the early 1970s toward the serious business that engages the attention of hard-working adults in the early 1980s. Can you think of better news?