Last fall Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford captured a national audience of 90 million with three televised debates that ended one apiece and a tossup.

But there's no tossup about the record of the debaters of the James Robinson Secondary School of Fairfax, Va., who are winning more than they lose.

After the topic of "criminal justice" was announced last spring, the debaters spent the summer researching and attending university debate workshops to prepare for the first tournament last October. Now, as the school year ends, the Robinson teams are counting their trophies.

The varsity debaters, seniors Mike Lawrence, Claudia (Shelley) Coleman and Tom Rehm and junior Mi (Mia) Young Yoo, were finalists in a debate of the AAA Straight Five Division of the Virginia high school league of 93 schools. The outcome of the debate, which was April 29 and 30 in Charlottesville, Va., has been formally protested. The Robinson students had become finalists after winning both the Northern District and Northern Region titles.

The four will be Washington area representatives on May 27, 28 and 29 in Milwaukee at the National Catholic Forensic League tournament, composed of outstanding teams from about 120 major cities. Placing second in the Midatlantic District finals two weeks ago earned the team an invitation to the National Tournament of Champions, sponsored by the University of Kentucky, this Friday and Saturday.

Robinson students also will travel to Seattle June 26 as Washington area representatives to the National Forensic League tournament of outstanding teams from all the states.

The team has been assigned the topic for next year - medical care - and is ready to begin preparing for October.

Much of the credit for the success of the Robinson debaters is due Marilyn Stafford, a lively and dedicated teacher of government and Russian history at the 3,700-student secondary school of 7th through 12th grades. Before teaching at Robinson, Stafford taught for four years at Herndon High School.

"At Robinson, I went to a faculty meeting and heard the discussion about debate and student congress. I had never seen a debate, didn't know the first thing about it. All I could think about was my brother, who is a real mumbler," she said.

But she found herself the volunteer debate coach of five students in fall, 1973. She also serves as secretary of the Washington Forensic League, composed of public and private schools.

"When I first started with the League there were 27 schools; now there are 53, with half of the Fairfax County schools in the League," she said.

This year she coached 28 students. "Actually Robinson has one of the largest and most active groups in the area," she said. "We are in strong competition with Yorktown, W. T. Woodson, West Springfield, St. John's, Gonzaga College and Georgetown Visitation. Some of the schools have one strong team, some several, but we have 14 teams."

Debate is an extra-curricular activity. Stafford says the debaters are all strong students who spend every afternoon and at least two nights a week studying and researching at libraries, including Georgetown University Law Library and the Library of Congress. Robinson participates in three leagues, invitational tournaments, usually 2 to 3 each month and weekly student congress sessions.

"From the first of October I've had no time off except at Christmas, New Year's and Easter. After school, I go from 3 to 10 with an hour for dinner and on Saturday from 8 to 6 with time out for lunch," she said.

"The question of funds is really a problem. It takes $2,000 a year, much of that for judges which a team furnishes, varying from one to five per tournament. The school allows us $500 from the county and we must raise the rest. We are having a Robinson Invitational Tournament on May 13 and 14 to finance the Kentucky trip. The team has cleaned up the stadium, the gym after the Virginia Slims tennis, sponsored dances and tournaments in order to keep going."

Varsity achievers like Mike Lawrence and Claudia Coleman have received four-year college scholarships. Tom Rehm received four appointments to the U.S. Military Academy and has accepted the Presidential appointment.

Mi (Mia) Young Yoo came to Virginia from Seoul, Korea, in 1967. She and her sister entered first grade because they didn't know any English. When she was in the fifth grade, she became a U.S. citizen. The junior debater joined the team as a 9th grader and is Rehm's partner.