If he blocks the state's high school exit exam from taking effect this June, Judge Robert B. Freedman will be crippling one of the most helpful school reforms California has ever put into effect. Freedman, a Superior Court judge in Oakland, indicated in a temporary ruling Monday that because the quality of education is uneven from school to school, poor and minority students don't have an equal chance of passing the test, which requires knowledge of 8th-grade math and 9th- or 10th-grade English. He will issue a final ruling Friday.

It is true that conditions at many rural and inner-city schools need major improvement; too many are overcrowded and lack well-qualified teachers. But the exit exam has been a valuable incentive for pushing high schools to make these improvements and more speedily than most other measures. The threat of missing out on a diploma has both schools and students working like never before. And the exit exam is accompanied by funding for remedial classes after school and on Saturdays.

Many students who are failing the English test including some who filed suit were not let down by their schools. But they may have weak command of the language because they arrived in this country only recently. Others wouldn't graduate anyway because they are failing other classes as well.

Should Freedman demand a fully equal public education system before the exam can count, he will be sacrificing the good that the exam is accomplishing for a return to the abysmal status quo that prevailed before the exam was required.

The exit exam is the only accountability measure that makes students, as well as schools, responsible for their success. That dual accountability works. When this year's seniors first took the tests two years ago, about 295,000 passed both. After remedial work and repeated chances to take the test again, the number is now up to about 390,000, or close to 90 percent of the senior class.

That's nearly 100,000 more students who have learned this material about half of them low-income students and it doesn't count the thousands who probably passed the exam this week and in March. (Those numbers are not yet available.) In fact, four of the 10 students who filed suit over the exam have asked to be dropped from the suit because they have since passed the test.

Before the test became mandatory for graduation, there was no real pressure to improve, and most students who failed the test the first time continued to flunk it. In granting students the freedom to fail, Freedman would be doing them no favors.

Los Angeles Times