THE DISTRICT'S McKinley High School is in many respects a typical urban secondary school. In standardized test scores last year, the Northeast Washington school had fallen as much as three years behind grade level. McKinley's scores are still below the national average, but there has been improvement by this year's 9th and 11th grade students in each testing category.

McKinley's 11th graders now surpass last's year class in science by a year and a half. Its ninth graders show a grade-level improvement of nearly an entire year in math, of a year in languages and of somewhat less than that in reading skills. "We are not where we want to be," says McKinley's principal, Bettye Topps, "but we are not going backward."

To improve the test-taking ability of their students, McKinley teachers and administrators identified certain skills that are measured in the standardized tests. One skill is to determine the main idea of a passage or paragraph. In learning to do this in their social studies textbook, for example, students were told that they were learning to answer a type of question that they would confront on the standardized tests.

There were other changes. As part of the regular Teacher Appraisal Process, teachers agreed in writing to help teach students how to handle skills that are measured in the standardized tests. At the end of the year, the teachers were required to provide documentation, in the form of their students' performance, in order to get a favorable appraisal. "When (the teachers) put their names on something and commit themselves to teaching skills effectively, then the commitment is stronger," Principal Topps says. Teachers also found they could work more effectively when they made a point of talking with each other on ways to help particular students.

For a long time, there was a belief, which is still not altogether dispelled, that inner-city schools would have little effect on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. McKinley and other schools that have showed improvement in their test scores are providing the vital proof that effective schools can make a difference.