The NAACP, which just a few years ago was passing resolutions condemning standardized testing, is about to launch a series of pilot projects designed to improve black performance on standardized college entrance exams.

From the association's point of view, it isn't so much a matter of a changed philosophy as of pragmatism.

"You might say this is our response to the growing need among blacks to be admitted to institutions of higher learning at a time when 27 states have increased their admissions requirements," says Beverly Cole, director of the NAACP's education department.

"In addition, the requirements of the recent NCAA rules means that (student-athletes) need to be able to attain higher scores on examinations."

She said the project, whose planning predates the NCAA's controversial Proposition 48 by more than a year, is based on two findings: the old one, that blacks tend to score around 100 points lower than whites on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and a more recent one, that blacks, when coached in test-taking techniques, tend to score 47 points above the white average.

So the NAACP, which still has its doubts about standardized testing, will coach. The project, designed by 10 black psychometricians with help from the Educational Testing Service, will begin shortly in New York and San Francisco. Depending on the availability of funding--some $20,000 per center--the pilot project may eventually cover seven cities.

"It is an open secret that coaching helps," says Cole, whose doctorate is in sociology. "But of those currently getting the sort of coaching we have in mind, 85 percent are from families that earn in excess of $30,000, a classification that does not include us. Most suburban and prep schools have this sort of program in place already. In light of this, we decided to launch a program for blacks and other disadvantaged students."

The pilot phase, which will involve some 500 students, is designed to test techniques. "We'll be looking at content as well as test-taking strategies--general test sophistication that should be helpful regardless of which standardized test one takes," Cole said.

"We still question the ability of a paper-and-pencil exam to predict college success," she said, "but the point is, we can get a lot of people to score a lot higher on these tests while we're still reviewing to see whether we've got a case for eliminating the tests or not."

The approach makes sense. My only criticism is that it doesn't begin early enough. Practice in the techniques of test- taking should start as early as the primary grades, with emphasis on understanding such standard test components as analogies, series, reading comprehension and logic.

I've heard the argument that it's a waste of time to teach the skills of taking tests that are inadequate and unfair measuring devices to begin with. But it occurs to me that it is impossible to teach children test-taking skills without also teaching them something of substance at the same time.

"The testing industry is powerful, and it is unlikely that it will be going out of business anytime soon," Cole said. "Meanwhile, a lot of our students are being screened out of higher ed."

And out of lower ed as well, which is why the NAACP's pragmatic new approach makes so much sense.