Tests are the American rites of passage. Instead of killing the lion with his spear, the American high school student takes the college board entrance exam.

But in a time of declining scores on standardized tests, educators are raising fundamental questions about how these exams determine an individual student's future in college and beyond.

Critics of scholastic aptitude tests challenge their effectiveness in predicting student performance in college and in life. Particular complaints are that they don't necessarily reflect what students have learned and don't provide a total personality profile.

Advocates acknowledge that test scores alone should not be a sole criterion for judging ability, but claim that these scores combined with the high school record are a fair indicator of how well an individual will do in college.

Neither side can totally explain why average test scores on the SAT last year dropped sharply from those in 1966-67. On the verbal test, scores declined from 466 to 429, while on the mathematics test they fell from 492 to 470.

The 1977 report of the Advisory Panel on the Scholastic Aptitude Test Score Decline, headed by Willard Wirtz, pointed to the tripling in numbers of students taking the test, more minorities taking the test, changing lifestyles and more youngsters watching TV.

But the panel did not address itself to the validity of test results or possible cultural biases, maintains Roger W. Shuy, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and assistant director for the Center for Applied Linguistics.

"How does test-taking ability relate to knowledge and ability?" he asks.

Albert Sims, vice president of the College Entrance Examination Board, a division of Educational Testing Service, responds that a relationship can be established between test scores and performance. Comparing the test scores and grades of an incoming college freshman class with the grades and scores of a present freshman class, he says, will correlate performance.

If Joe Smith had a C average and a 500 score on his SAT test as a high school senior, his rank as a college freshman should be comparable according to these standards.

But Shuy questions whether the performance of a college freshman is valid and says that tracking a student through four years of college is needed to reach any fair conclusions.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' organization and a staunch critic of standardized tests, maintains that tests don't adequately measure student abilities and skills they have developed. NEA points out that local school jurisdictions may have different academic orientations and objectives.

NEA further argues that there is little correlation between passing these exams and achieving sucess in given fields or course areas.

"There is no evidence that the results of these tests prove success in anything except the things the tests measure," says John Sullivan, NEA director of Instruction and Professional Development. "Our general viewpoint is that tests should be given to measure what students have achieved in relationship to the objectives set for that group of youngsters."

College Board spokesmen advise that test scores shouldn't be the sole determinant in evaluating prospective college students. Other factors, ncluding performance as measured by school teachers, extra-curricular activities, artistic and athletic abilities, and motivation are equally important. This partially depends on the size and expectations of particular colleges and universities.

"Large institutions don't have as much time to evalute individuals in that kind of detail, but smaller institutions look at students in these terms and make the best judgments they can," notes Sims. (Affirmative action) "has led colleges and universities to look for more diversity in their student body."

Both sides are hopeful that educational institutions will begin looking more towards other factors, sizing up potential students. Sims says CEEB is "undertaking research to look at these other factors" and how they could possibly be built into the evaluation process.

To some degree, colleges and universities have already begun rethinking their academic standards, as enrollment declines. This year will mark the last time that recent high school graduates form the majority of next year's college freshmen classes. The student body along with the general population, is ultimately expected to age dramatically and recruiting competition will become more fierce.

Sims speculates that this competition for the shrinking enrollment will lead to lower requirements on grades and test scores. But some educators say they are reluctant to allow this to happen.

"We're willing to take a possible enrollment decrease in order to maintain a high standard of academic competence," says Harold Abel, president of Central Michigan University. "If we increase our standards, faculty can assume a certain level of competence from students and (they) will have confidence they are competent when they leave."

It would appear, however, that regardless of the merits or shortcomings of standardized tests, they are still an accepted part of academic life.

"Testing, for all its shortcomings, is here to stay. Our biggest problems come from reading more into the test scores than they really reveal," concludes Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. "Tests are simply one method of showing the student and teacher where the academic strengths and weaknesses are."