COMPETENCY testing of teachers, one thrust of education reform in the 1980s, is about to enter the computer age.

The basic skills portion of the National Teacher Examinations is being revamped so that, beginning in 1992, undergraduates who plan to teach will have their reading, writing and mathematics skills tested on a personal computer, instead of by more traditional exams that use pencil and paper.

Representatives of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., said the computerized exam will assess basic skills more accurately because there will be fewer multiple-choice questions and more complex items, such as asking the test-taker to create a graph based on the data supplied.

"With a computer, you're able to ask non-multiple choice questions," said Paul A. Ramsey, developer of the new exam. He said the computerized test can be scored immediately, even faster than multiple-choice answer sheets. Test-makers have often defended multiple-choice questions, despite their limitations, because machines can read penciled answers rapidly.

Ramsey said changes in the composition of the basic skills test, which is to be renamed, would not make it more difficult. And simple instructions from the computer will mean students need not be computer literate, he said.

The National Teacher Examinations, first given in 1940, is the battery of tests most widely used to assess teachers' abilities. In the last academic year, 330,000 candidates took at least one part of the exams, which are used in 33 states to decide who is qualified to teach in elementary and secondary schools.

The new test of "enabling skills," as the nonprofit testing service calls it, will substitute for three existing exams on preprofessional skills, communications skills and general knowledge that prospective teachers take at various stages of their careers, depending upon state laws.

Ramsey said the new exam is designed to be taken in college, either at the end of the sophomore year or the beginning of the junior year -- before students declare a major and begin taking education courses. That timing permits students who fail the exam to complete remedial work before they attempt to teach a class.

"If there is a question about {basic} literacy, that ought to be cleared up before a teacher candidate is admitted to a teacher education program," said Sharon Robinson, who directs the National Center for Innovation at the National Teachers Association.

Robinson praised the new exam, as did Louise Sundin, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of a panel advising the Educational Testing Service. Sundin called it "a much broader test" that would provide a more accurate assessment of a prospective teacher's preparation.

Taking the computerized exam will also be more convenient for test-takers. Rather than taking the exams in large groups on a few dates, individual students will be able to make an appointment to take the exam, he said. Each of three sections will take an hour to complete.

"The exam does not have to be a daylong tortuous process to find out what the {student's} deficiencies are," Robinson said.

Robinson expressed some concern that students unfamiliar with computers might be at a disadvantage. She suggested the colleges give such students an opportunity to spend time in a campus computer lab getting comfortable with the machines. "I would not want anyone's first involvement with a computer to be around a high-stakes test," she said.

Sundin said computerization would send the right signal to anyone interested in teaching. "The teachers of tommorrow will have to be computer literate, and I think this will tell them that," she said.

The results of pilot testing done over the summer are being analyzed, and some questions are being reworked, Ramsey said. More pilot testing is scheduled in February.

The revisions in basic skills testing are only one set of changes in the National Teacher Examinations. Subject area tests are being rewritten and a new kind of assessment of classroom performance is being developed, with both to be introduced in 1992. They will not be computerized.

Carol Dwyer, director of the NTE projects, said the subject-area tests were being revised because of changes in state certification requirements during the 1980s. High school teachers are commonly required to pass the NTE exam in English, math, a foreign language or other subjects in order to teach them.

Dwyer said the revised tests will include a core set of items and several components that a state can use depending on its certification standards. Although teachers' mastery of academic content continues to be a public concern, Dwyer said "there isn't any intention to make it {subject-area testing} more difficult."

The classroom performance assessment, Dwyer said, will consist of a list of criteria for principals, master teachers or other evaluators to use in measuring a teacher's ability to plan instruction, deliver it, manage a classroom and evaluate student progress. Who evaluates teachers will be determined by state and local laws or collective bargaining agreements.

"They're going to better assess the ability of a person actually to teach," said David Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Robinson and Sundin, representing the nation's major teacher unions, also expressed satisfaction with the classroom assessment and subject-area test.