CHICAGO (AP) _ Premature, low-birth-weight babies given special education from the start scored significantly higher on IQ tests at age 3 than their counterparts who weren't helped, researchers said Tuesday.

Infants born weighing between 4.4 pounds and 5.5 pounds who received special educational help in addition to medical care scored an average of 98 on IQ tests taken at age 3, the researchers wrote.

That was 13.2 IQ points higher than subjects who were born in the same weight range but who received only the medical care, said the researchers, who were led by Dr. Ruth Gross of Stanford University.

Infants who weighed about 4.3 pounds or less at birth and were given the educational help scored an average of 91 at age 3, or 6.6 IQ points higher than counterparts who got only medical care, the group reported in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

''The predictiveness for the scores at age 3 means good things for the kids (who were helped) in the years ahead,'' said Dr. Donna Bryant, a study participant and research psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

''The fact that the differences were so great means that fewer of these kids will be held back in school,'' she said.

The four-year study involved 985 babies born in 1985 in eight states - Arkansas, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Washington, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. One-third received the educational help, two-thirds did not.

Almost 7 percent of babies born annually in the United States, or 250,000, are of low-birth weight, 5.5 pounds or less, said Gross.

Thanks to advances in technology, almost all babies born weighing more than 4.5 pounds survive, and those weighing about 2 pounds have a 20 percent chance of survival, Gross said.

But she added that all low-birth-weight babies risk developmental problems.

Of the children studied, those not helped educationally were 2.7 times more likely to have IQs in the mental retardation range, below 70, the study found. An average IQ for all people is 100.

In the study, the babies who were helped had researchers visit their families' homes weekly during the child's first year to advise the parents and make sure the babies had educational toys.

At 1 year old, the child started going to a child development center five days a week, while researchers continued visiting the home every two weeks.

The researchers also held group meetings for parents every two weeks to give advice about child rearing and health and safety.

Berry Brazelton, a pediatrics professor at Harvard University's medical school, said the study results ''certainly showed the importance of early intervention. ... The critical part of this study is the first year.''

But Arnold Sameroff, a psychologist who teaches at Brown University and practices at Bradley Hospital in Providence, R.I., said other researchers will find it hard to tell what in the multifaceted treatment made the difference.

Universities involved in the $33 million study were the University of Arkansas, Little Rock; Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York; Harvard Medical School, Boston; University of Miami in Florida; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; University of Texas, Dallas; University of Washington, Seattle; and Yale University, New Haven, Conn.