A three-year campaign to lift the academic achievement and aspirations of Fairfax County's minority students has made progress, but a large racial gap remains, the School Board was told last night.

The annual report on the minority achievement program showed several gains, school system research director Todd Endo said. Standardized test scores for 1987, as reported last June, are up; black students are no longer disproportionately enrolled in programs for the emotionally disturbed, and the percentage of blacks is down in classes for the mentally retarded and up for the first time in gifted and talented center programs.

More minority students now plan to attend four-year colleges. Black and Hispanic school attendance, while still less than that of white and Asian students, has remained stable.

But Endo said black and Hispanic students still lag behind whites on test scores, enrollment in honors classes and receipt of high grades. More blacks and Hispanics receive low grades, graduate with lower-level high school diplomas or drop out before graduation.

More black and Hispanic students are held back a grade. Last year, more than 10 percent of intermediate and high school blacks were retained.

The racial gap persists just as the minority population, now 21.6 percent of enrollment, is growing.

School Board member Frank Francois, a black appointed to represent the minority community, urged school officials last night to speed up dissemination of information about programs that work.

Other prominent county blacks have criticized the school system for allegedly giving individual schools too much control and for not publishing research showing which programs work.

School officials counter that programs work best when devised for needs of a particular school.

Francois and board member Kohann Whitney also called for more attention to the growing Hispanic population in the schools.

Overall, however, Francois praised the progress: "When there is commitment from the top, the objective can be accomplished, and it is obvious the commitment is there."

Last night's report included a listing of especially promising practices begun in individual schools.

One, devised by George Mason University Professor Robert Pasnak, is being used at several elementary schools, including Hollin Meadows in the Alexandria area.

On a recent morning, kindergarten aide Janet Manion placed three small plastic dogs and one plastic horse on a table in front of her. She turned to a boy in a turquoise sweatshirt, one of five children seated around the table.

"Which one is different?" she asked. He pointed confidently to the horse.

"Pat yourself on the back!" she told him.

Manion also directed the same exercise with plastic tableware, letters of the alphabet and other objects. The idea is to teach concepts to underachieving children that they might otherwise not learn until after higher-achieving fellow students do. It is based on the work of Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget.

"It definitely does make a difference," Manion said.

In other action last night, the board approved a phased-in cut in retirement benefits that will correct a situation that has allowed some school employees to collect pensions equaling more than 100 percent of their salaries.