Next month, Arlington ninth graders will be asked to read a recipe, understand directions on an aspirin label and decipher a road map. They will be asked to cite important incidents in American history, give directions for making a skirt or a model plane and calculate how long it would take to reach a destination given the speed and distance.

The test, which the county's ninth graders will have to pass before they are awarded diplomas three years from now, is designed to ensure that the school system's graduates have certain basic knowledge and skills.

Arlington's move to set minimum requirementsd in reading, writing and arithmetic is part of a nationwide trend to give credibility to the high school diploma in the face of mounting criticism over the falling academic performance of high school students.

"It's a very hot issue," said Christopher pipho of the Education Commission of the States. "It's making us focus on our whole educational process like Sputnik made us focus on teaching math and science."

Thirty states so far have established minimum competencies" by educators - for students to meet before they are promoted or graduated from high school. The trend is variously seen as a reaction to liberal grade promotions and as an aspect of the back-to-basics movement.

All local school districts in Virginia, Maryland and the District are in some stage of developing minimum requirements for graduation, but Arlington is furthest along in putting them into force.

If approved, as expected, by the Maryland State Board of Education, Prince George's and Montgomery counties will require this year's eight grade class to pass a reading test before graduation. Fairfax County has developed a list of requirements like Arlington's, and Alexandria is in the process of developing one. The District is soliciting opinions from business and industry on what skills graduates should possess. A list of requirement will be based on responses.

Most of the requirements being prepared are practical ones, designed to test whether high school graduates have acquired the knowledge and skills needed to fuction in an adult world as defined by school officials. The requirements should pase on difficulty for the average student, school officials say.

"The majority of Arlington students are not going to have problems with such requirements," said Gennett Nygard, deputy associate superintendent for Arlington schools. "But testing will show us the students who are really having trouble. Then we will give them additional instruction for what they need in the adult world."

Ninth garders who fail the test will have several opportunities to retake it, Nygard said.

"We are not trying to disenfranchise people from a diploma," she said. "We are trying to assure students and society that graduates will have basic skills when they leave school."

Arlington ninth graders will be required to produce a writing sample on Feb. 7 and 8. They will be tested in reading, grammar, computation and social studies Feb. 15 and 16. The reading test will include tasks like reading a newspaper articile and explaining what it said.

The degree of proficiency required to pass the test is roughly equivllent to the eighth or ninth grade level, Nygard said. Maryland and suburban Virginia school officials say their requirements would require a similar level of competence.

Between 80 and 90 per cent of about 200 Arlington students passed a draft form of the minimum competence test given this fall, Ngyard said. She said she expects better performance next month because the pilot group tested was "not at all representative of Arlington students."

She said many foreign students taking English-as-a-second-language (ESOL) courses were included in the pilot group, and that only advanced English-as-a-second-language students would be required to take the test next month.

However, if an Arlington ninth grader transferred to a Fairfax County high school next year, he or she, might have to meet slightly different requirements before being allowed to graduate.

Among the skills a student must acquire for graduation from Fairfax are:

Determine correct change from $10 or $5 for a given purchase. Find the correct amount of tax on a given income from a federal or state tax table. Make a logical inference from a political cartoon. Identify ways of demonstrating confidence in oneself to others.

"Right now we're working this information into courses in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, said Ronald J. Savage, curriculum specialist for Fairfax schools. "We're also outlining plans for remediation of a student who doesn't meet the requirements."

The Alexandria school administration plans to bring a similar list of requirements before the School Board for action next month. Neither Fairfax nor Alexandria, has decided whether to test students, (rather than, to say, allow teachers to ascertain if students have mastered the skills, although both are leaning in that direction. No tests would be ready until next school year, school officials said.

Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria have different ways of judging if a student is qualified to graduate because the State Board of Education in 1975 left it up to local school districts to develop requirements and decide if students met them.

Virginia set four broad areas in which students have to prove competence, beginning with the class of 1981; functional literacy in reading, writing and speaking, computation, U.S. history and culture and job seeking ability.

Maryland, on the other hand, is drawing up requirements that will be uniform for all school districts under its five-year plan called Project Basic. Maryland eighth graders will be the first class required to meet the standards by undergoing a series of tests.

The first test - a reading test now given to seventh, ninth and 11th graders, but not required for graduation - would be given before June if the State School Board approves it next month. Functional tests in mathematics and writing would follow next year.

The District of Columbia school system is sending out questionnaires to business and industry to determine what skills and knowledge they feel graduates should have, according to Associate Superintendent James L. Guines. In about a year, after the responses are in, D.C. schools will start developing a list of requirements, that Guines said would be more than "just survival skills."