After two years of study, a national task force has recommended a broad effort to increase the number of high-achieving minority students in schools and colleges.

The National Task Force on Minority Achievement's strategy of "affirmative development" represents one possible response to the legal constraints increasingly being placed on traditional affirmative action policies. The panel was formed by the College Board, which administers the Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT.

Noting that even minority students from middle-class homes generally perform below the level of whites and Asians from similar backgrounds, the report recommends expanding academic programs designed to help disadvantaged students--such as preschools and after-school sessions--to include minority students from higher-income families to boost their achievement as well.

In recent decades, most selective colleges and universities have taken race into account in admissions, in part, to offset the lower average scores of minorities on the SAT. But recent court decisions and state initiatives placing restrictions on affirmative action have reduced minority enrollment at a number of top public colleges in California, Texas and Washington state.

Some colleges faced with curbs on affirmative action, including the University of Massachusetts and University of Washington, have responded by giving more weight to the social disadvantages, primarily economic, that applicants for admission have overcome. But that approach would not benefit most of the middle-class minorities the panel identifies.

"We at the College Board are strong supporters of affirmative action. We think that in places where affirmative action is no longer in place, we've got to do affirmative development," said Gaston Caperton, the College Board's president and a former West Virginia governor.

The 31-member panel of educators, business leaders and philanthropists found the achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups to be "far-reaching," with evidence of "academic underachievement of minority students at virtually all socioeconomic levels."

Although African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans make up 30 percent of the nation's population under 18, students from those groups made up 10 percent of high school seniors who did the best on national reading, math and science tests in 1998, 5 percent of the top scorers on the SAT that year and 13 percent of college graduates in 1995.

The report, entitled "Reaching the Top," urges educators at all levels of government to place a high priority on producing more top minority students, in order to help "integrate . . . the professional and leadership ranks of our society."

The panel, chaired by retired professors Edmund Gordon of Yale University and Eugene H. Cota-Robles of the University of California at Santa Cruz, urged policymakers to study and then transplant school reforms that have proven successful in boosting achievement, citing as examples improved teacher training, involving parents more in education and teaching elementary students to master essential skills such as reading. The report encouraged minority parents to get their children engaged in those kinds of learning experiences beyond regular schooling, just as other parents have done to strengthen their children's academic performance.

Another finding of the report was that African American, Hispanic and Native American students who get good grades in high school often don't sustain the same level of academic achievement in college.

To address that problem, the panel recommended that colleges should aim to increase the number of minority high achievers among their students and cited the Meyerhoff Scholars program for African American students majoring in science and engineering at the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus as one of the existing models that offers sound academic advice, encourages study groups, builds skills in mathematics and provides enough financial aid so that students do not have to work while in school.

"What faculty members have done is to create a climate where it's not just okay to be smart and black, it's great to be smart and black," said Freeman Hrabowski, the university's president and a panel member.

The panel indicated that funding for the range of initiatives it recommended could come from government agencies, corporations and private foundations. The College Board, Caperton said, plans to raise $10 million from foundations over the next five years to support the proposed national effort.