IN 1980 AND 1981, when the District's public school system first implemented a tougher curriculum designed to end social promotions, the results were disturbing. More than 31 percent of the elementary school students failed to master the new standards by the end of the first semester. Through social promotions, those students would have passed regardless of academic performance. In more recent years, however, more elementary students have passed the competency-based curriculum (CBC), and as a result, their standardized test scores have crept above national norms for the first time.

The CBC is based on mastering certain skills before a student can pass to the next grade. When it was introduced for seventh graders for the first time last fall, school system officials anticipated the same initial and disastrous results. Fortunately, they were wrong. This year's seventh grade class has passed the tougher curriculum at roughly the same rate that last year's seventh graders passed the older and easier standards. James Guines, the school system's associate superintendent for instruction, says this is because these seventh graders reaped the benefits of mastering the new curriculum in their elementary years. Work is now being done to implement the student progress plan in the eighth grade next fall.

But what about the unfortunate situation of the school system's older students? They had been passed on to higher grades without mastering basic skills. The reading ability of the average 11th grader, for example, is more than two years below grade level. In science, that 11th grader is more than three years below grade level.

Again, the school system is trying to address the problem, this time by sending platoons of school system officials to the city's high schools. They are looking at test scores, failure rates, the number of dropouts and other things to determine what is working at some high schools and what is not working at others. If a particular school seems to have an effective strategy, then that strategy can be used by other schools. They have found, for instance, that there is very little regular dialogue between principals and teachers at the high schools they have studied. At Hine Junior High school in Southeast, a school that has improved dramatically, the principal conducted regular talks with department heads of each course to determine what was needed to improve student performance.

What this shows is that when students fall behind, it is very difficult if not impossible to get them up to grade level. While the school system is working to help those students make prog hope lies in the younger grades. The tougher curriculum is working and producing better students. There is reason for much hope.