WITH THE ACADEMIC QUALITY of teacher trainees on the decline nationwide, education departments in Washington area colleges and universities are taking steps to try and ensure that their graduates meet acceptable standards.

In an effort to reverse, or at least control, declining academic quality among their students, some departments are trying to recruit top-notch high school students into the teaching field. Others are instituting competency tests and are considering expanding their programs to require teaching internships. Still others are sitting tight and hoping that better market conditons, expected in the next decade, will attract better students into the teaching profession.

In the fall of 1979, W. Timothy Weaver, as associate professor of education at Boston University, released a study showing that college board test scores for education majors had declined more steeply than those for the general undergraduate population since 1973. The most severe drop, 29 points, came in mathematics SAT scores. Education ranked 27th among 29 fields of study for which college entrance scores were reported.

Recently Weaver said in an interview with a Washington Post reporter that his latest study, which he intends to complete next month, shows the same kind of trend continuing. "The most recent college board data for people indicating an interest in teaching shows that scores are still diminishing."

Weaver believes the problem is purely a function of the market. Teachers' average salaries have been declining steadily since 1971-72, when they reached a high of $17,237 (in adjusted 1978-79 dollars). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the current average salary is $15,160 in adjusted dollars. There are also few teaching jobs available, except in some fields such as math, science, and vocational education.

With few jobs and little money to be made, it follows that brighter student find teaching less attractive, Weaver explains. "The students vote with their feet.They go into other fields."

Many deans of education say also that the increased opportunities in vocations heretofore closed to women have made teaching a less desirable occupation for them. "Basically, you used to have a pool of very bright women," said Eugene Kelly, dean of the department of education at George Washington University. "They are now going elsewhere. And that's a handicap."

Everyone agrees that the current decline in the quality of students being attracted to teaching careers is a problem. What to do about it is a matter of some discussion. Some, like Boston University's Weaver, feel that the problem is a "market" problem and will be solved only in the market. He suggests adjusting the focus of teacher training to give students more job options, to prepare them in other fields -- "particularly in the field of training and instruction in private industry, where there are jobs." Then, Weaver says, better students would be attracted.

His point of view is echoed by Ralph Cyr of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. "The public schools are not the only places to get jobs. Teachers tend to be more employable than many other BA degrees -- in community service, private business. Instead of dismantling teacher education institutions, we should help them adapt."

Larry Bowen, dean of George Mason University's department of professional studies, speculates that market conditions may soon begin eating away at the rigid salary scales used in most public school districts. Even though teaching jobs are scarce, there is a shortage of math and science instructors, and many schools may have to start paying more to attract teachers in those fields.

"Here at George Mason, we have to pay certain professors, say in economics, more than we would someone in liberal arts, just to attract them." The same may hold true in the schools, he adds.

In the meantime, departments of education, feeling compelled to improve the quality of their graduates and unwilling to wait for the long and sometimes mercurial process of market adjustment, are attacking the issue of quality.

These are the times, Bowen says, when departments like his should be more selective.

"It is not like California after World War II when the population was growing so fast that education schools were pumping out teachers as fast as they could."

George Mason's education department will begin math competency testing in the spring for prospective elementary school teachers.Before admission, students are already required to write an essay on "Why I want to be a teacher." "That gives us an opportunity to spot writing deficiencies," explains Bowen. Grade point average also figures heavily in the screening process. "That does indicate one's willingness to work."

Also at the University of Maryland, points out Dean of Education Louise Berman, "Screening is becoming more important." So is recruitment. The university has a program to attract minority students into math and science education programs, and the college of education is actively recruiting dean's list high school students in Maryland communities, although without much success.

Berman also noted that the university is considering extending its program to include an entire year of teacher internship. "That would give us more control over competency," she maintains.

"All of us need to address the issues of quality," agrees GWU's Kelly. "But, we also must offer rewards to teachers which are reasonable."

Kelly said no specific changes are being made in GWU's education admissions procedures or curriculum (47 percent of the current applicants are turned down because they do not meet standards). But he adds that the entrance test scores for this year's freshmen education majors are slightly better than they were last year.

Despite the bleak professional and financial outlook for teachers, there are still those who want a life at the blackboard. In the Washington area, many of them are returning to college to study for second careers. With a lack of cynicism that is refreshing, even unexpected, such students say they want to teach because they feel that in the classroom they can make a contribution to society.

"We still have some people who are concerned for the future," says Barbara Smith, dean of education at the University of the District of Columbia. "Most of our graduates want to serve this community."

Sandy Ives of Potomac, Maryland, now a junior at GWU majoring in elementary and special education, has always wanted to be a teacher. "Most of my friends," she says, "are majoring in business administration," a field which has attracted a number of students, particularly women, who in years past might have become teachers. But Ives doesn't feel her friends look down on what she is doing. "They think it's pretty neat."

Karen Morris, who earned a BA in English over a year ago at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has returned to Maryland to get her teaching certification after working a year for a Baltimore newspaper. "I realized my forte was working with people, not meeting deadlines," she said recently, munching an almond bar in the education department snack room. "What I feel I can do is to teach students to reason. It's a common denominator in everything. When I teach Shakespeare, I want my students not to be in love with iambic pentameter but to know each character. Why they are the way they are, what supports them."

Morris has found her education courses stimulating. "I expected them to be pretty gaseous. But they aren't really. A lot have been useful."

Barbara Blevins, a student at George Mason, gave up her career as a legal secretary to major in education, "even though I made more than I will in teaching." She wants to work with children, she said. "Teaching is about 'beginnings.' People who are in education care about that."

"I'll never be rich so I might as well do something I like," says Robert Romero, now finishing a degree at George Mason. Romero, served in the military seven years and ran his own drug store business. Born in Puerto Rico, he still speaks Spanish fluently.

"I have experience in lots of areas and in two cultures. Plus, I feel like a role model. We need more male teachers."

If recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics is correct, Romero and those who take degrees in education after him may find more jobs and get better pay with the decade. Salaries for public school teachers are expected to climb at the end of the 1980s to an average of $17,115, in adjusted dollars, a substantial increase over their current levels. $1

Also, as school enrollments, which have been declining, rise again toward the end of the '80s, there will be an overall shortage of teachers -- a 20 percent shortfall by 1990, says the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Those are the kinds of market conditions which educators hope will make teaching more attractive to better students.

As some colleges of education try to adjust to today's problems of image, economics, academic quality and enrollments, and also to predict what tomorrow holds, many others are simply closing their doors. Since 1976, some 200 schools of education have ceased operation. The 1150-1200 that remain will surely see a number of changes.

"We're in for a new era" says George Mason's Bowen. "But we don't to lose sight of our function -- the preparation of teachers."