Officials of this city's school system have begun requiring students to pass a literacy test to graduate from high school, a move that they say has brought about a dramatic improvement in student attitudes and performance.

Since the school board decided to make passing the test a condition of high school graduation, the percentage of students failing the test has dropped from 27 to 6.

"When they told me I had to pass the test to graduate, I started paying more attention to my work," said Ricardo Miller, a student at Maggie Walker High School in one of Richmond's inner city nieghborhoods.

"They told me I would have to work harder and I did. I studied at night and I paid more attention to my teachers," said Miller, who failed the test the first time around. "My father told me it was important to pass the test and I had to take it seriously. I couldn't just let things go by and ignore them and expect to graduate any more."

Miller's attitude, say school officials, is merely reflective of what's happened throughout the city's nine high shcols since the seniors were told last fall they couldn't graduate without passing a literacy test.

When the tests were given a year ago to this year's senior - before they were made a pre-requisite for high school graduation - 503 students failed them, official said. The tests are pegged to reading levels of an average ninth grader.

"Part of the problem was that the kids wouldn't take their work seriously," said Robert Frossard, an assistant superintendent for secondary education here."We'd been telling our high school students for two or three years, 'you'd better get serious. One of these days you're going to have to pass a test to graduate.' But they really didn't believe us."

When the school board did decide last fall to implement the literacy test requirement effective with the class of 1978, the reaction was immediate.

"Apathy began vanishing from the classroom," said Frossard.

Richmond's new literacy test is part of a nationwide trend to enforce minimum academic standards by requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in certain basic skills before they can graduate from high school.

So far 31 stages - including Maryland and Virginia - have adopted minimum competency requirements as a prerequisite for high school graduation, but the effective dates are in the future.

In the area of Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, Richmond is the first major school system to test for minimum competencies as a requirment for high school graduation.

The tests include such "survival skills" as understanding a written automobile warranty, being able to use a dictionary, filling out a voter registration form, an employment insurance claim and reading and understanding a newspaper article.

"They're only hard if you can't read," said Frossard.

Additionally, students are required to write paragraphs of several sentences on a variety of topics, write business and personnal letters, make an oral summary of a selection of poetry or prose that is read aloud and give clear explanations and directions.

The level of an average ninth grader was chosen, Frossard said, "because if you can handle ninth grade skills, you can survive."

"If we asked for the skills of an average 12th grader, half the kids would fail, because by definition, half are below average," he added.

"You have to have some middle ground that is attainable. If you set your goals too high, it won't work, but the minute you start having too low expectations, the kids start living down to them."

When the school board voted to require the tests as a condition of high school graduation, the students reacted "with mixed feelings" said Virginia Timok, director of communicative arts at Maggie Walker High.

"Some students felt there was a need. Some felt we really sticking it to them" said Timok.

Richard Miller, who passed the test when he took it the second time around, says he thinks the test requirement is a good idea.

"I believe I know more as a result of it," he said. "I feel really proud of myself. I really feel that I can do something now."

Dorothy Binns, a classmate of Miller at Maggie Walker, is not so sure.

"They should waited until 1979," said Binns, who is studying hard to pass the test when she will take it for the third time later this monthe.

Like all seniors who have yet to pass the test, Binns is receiving remedial instruction, and in her case, classmates are helping out too.

"Patricia Cole, a girl in my first and second period has been helping me," Binns said. "She's been telling me some of the things she did to pass the test."

When it was announced last fall that passing the tests would be compulsory for high school graduates, ambitious tutoring and remedial programs were launced in all city high schools to reduce the 27 percent failure rate.

At Maggie Walker, said principal Fred Cooper, teachers logged extra nours, and college students from nearby Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Union universities volunteered to work with students.

When he learned that the failure rate at Walker had been cut to 7 percent from 34 percent, Cooper celebrated by taking his entire communicative arts staff out to lunch.

"We felt as though all the sacrifices we had made had been rewarded," said Cooper. "It has done wonders for our staff and student body."

Since the tests became a requirement for graduation, said Cooper, "there has been a real turnaround. There has been a seriousness of purpose that I haven't seen since I've been principal here."

Requiring passage of the literacy tests, officials said, is part of an overall campaign begun four years ago to boost student performance in three critical areas of reading, language arts and mathematics."We've got all the problems of a large, urban, heavily minority school system," said Frossard. (Eighty-one percent of Richmond's students are members of a minority group.) "People were giving us every reason in the world why our tests scores were low and why our kids would never read at the national norms.

"We decided we wouldn't do it that way. We've set ourselves a goal of having our kids reading at the national norms by 1980."

To achieve that goal, all elementary school teachers have been required to take courses in teaching of reading and extensive testing is done at grades two, five and eight.

Those students who need it receive special help and in some cases they are placed in special classed instead of being promoted at the end of the school year.

Additionally, teachers have been told they are going to be held accountable.

"I say to our teachers, "Teach or get out," says William Jordan, principal of Richmond's Fox Elementary School. "If you can't teach reading, leave, because reading is our number one priority."

Citywide, the effort appears to be having some success, at least in the lower grades. At the second grade level, for example, reading scores have risen from the 34th percentile to the 45th percentil since 1975.