The Alexandria school board for the past two weeks has been wrestling with the problem of setting standards to ensure that graduating high school seniors can function in the outside world.

The standards, proposed by Superintendent John L. Bristol to go into effect by 1981, would require that high school seniors be able to accomplish at least eighth-grade work in reading and math before they are allowed to graduate.

Bristol's proposal was spurred by a recently passed state Board of Education requirement that graduating seniors in the state be able to demonstrate minimum competencies in reading, writing, speaking and math skills and United States history and culture, as well as the ability to enter college or find a job. The state board voted in March to require a statewide testing program to ensure that reading and math minimum competencies are met before graduation, although the board has not yet determined what those standards will be. The first class to be affected will graduate in 1981.

The Alexandria school board held a public hearing May 17 and a meeting May 24 to consider Bristol's proposal, a plan which he said would ensure that students could function successfully in society.

Although the May 17 meeting brought only a handful of witnesses, the board's final decision promises to have a profound effect on the school system.

For the past two weeks the board had been amending the superintendent's proposal and is expected to continue the process for at least one more meeting, although the date of the next meeting on competency requirements has not been set.

During the two meetings, much of the board discussions centered on when and why students should be promoted. Bristol recommended that elementary students who are absent without excuse for 20 or more days of school and high school students who miss five or more classes of a particular subject, without a valid excuse, not receive credit for their work, since these students usually do poorly on achievement tests. Secondary students would be required to repeat the course to receive credit. However, Bristol told the board he does not want elementary students to be kept from promotion to the next grade because of absences or poor performance.

"I believe we should recognize that promotion is not graduation," Bristol said. "It is just putting students at a different level.

Bristol said that retaining students could cause problems as the student became too old to associate with classmates. He suggested that a "six-foot, three-inch 17-year old" would not be well served in a classroom of second graders. He said students need to be in an atmosphere where they can feel comfortable to learn.

Board Member Lou B. Cook disagreed and called the automatic promotion of students a "Catch-22."

"Telling (a student) that he didn't get credit for last year won't help him know what he's supposed to," she said.

Board Chairman Carlyle C. Ring Jr. called the possibility of high school students being retained in classes with elementary students as "false-issue" because it was so exaggerated. He said the threat of retention for poor work or poor attendence is needed to stimulate the student to do better and the parents to encourage him to do better.

The board tentatively agreed to retain students not meeting the attendance requirement, but it defeated a motion by Ring to not promote students performing a year or more behind their age level on standardized tests.

The board has not yet reached a concensus on the questioon of diplomas for the system. Bristol recommended that students meeting all the minimum competency requirements by awarded a regular diploma. Students who fail in some of the competencies but complete high school should be given a special school system diploma, he suggested. Such a diploma would help students to get jobs, because employers frequently are more interested in whether high school was completed than in academic achievement. Bristol said he would consider anyone receiving the school system diploma as having graduate.

Bristol also supported a diploma with honors for students graduating with a grade point average of 3.0 or better.

The board did agree tentatively to consider a studen't as having met the school system's minimum competency requirements for reading and math akills by either passing a standardize test on the eighth-grade level or completing a course with eighth-grade level material. It agreed, however, to accept the state provision on this if it is more stringent.

The board easily defeated an amendment presented by Ring that would have required all high school level classes to be taught at ninth grade or higher level after Bristol called a ninth grade level "undefinable."

Ring said he thought the high school classes should be taught at the ninth grade level to challenge the students and make them reach "to achieve a higher level."

Board member Claudia C. Waller said the Ring's proposal gave her "tremendous problems" because "sometimes people have to start slow and grow fast."

Board member Wilfred J. Smith said, however, that the current system, in which some high school classes are taught on the sixth grade level, is using the type of logic that "two plus two equals eight." He said that unless "appropriate" level classes are taught in high school the standards are useless.

The minimum competencies set by the board will tentatively apply to all Alexandria students except those in special education programs and some non-English speaking students.

The Virginia mandate for minimum competencies is part of a growing national movement. Virginia is one of 36 states, including Maryland, that requires competency testing at some level between kindergarten and graduation.

Alexandria test scores, which could show how students would rate on competency exams, are expected to be released sometime this month.