Alexandria school board member Wilfred J. Smith sharply attacked the board's decision last week to adopt an eighth-grade minimum competency level for graduating high school seniors, calling it instead a "minimum incompetency" policy.

Smith, who along with board member Michael Mulroney voted against the policy, said the standards being set by the board were not stringent enough for high school seniors. Mulroney was out of town this week and could not be reached for comment.

"I thought the package will not raise our competency in the long run," Smith said. "The program is not going to arrest the decline of scores but stabilize it at a low level."

The board's action requires graduating high school seniors to master math and [WORD ILLEGIBLE]skills at least at an eighth grade [WORD ILLEGIBLE]starting in 1981 by either passing an eighth grade math or reading standardized test or successfully completing a course taught on the eighth grade level before graduating. The board agreed to accept state standards if they are set higher than the eighth grade level.

The policy also establishes a limit of 20 unexcused absences a year for elementary students and five a quarter for secondary students. Students who exceed the absence limit will not receive credit for their classes under the policy. The board, however, agreed to a suggestion by School Superintendent John L. Bristol that elementary students be allowed to go on to the next higher grade even when they exceed the absence limit if school officials recommend the advancement.

Excused absences were defined by the board as those caused by illness and noted by a physician or verified to the satisfaction of the principal; also excused are students who are taking homebound instruction. The board also agreed to establish a special committee to work with the principal to rule on special cases.

Mulroney tried unsuccessfully to get the board to accept a greater number of absences. He argued that good students need to have the option of sometimes missing an easy class to do the work for their harder classes.

Board Vice Chairman Alison M. May disagreed. "A good student finds the time to do the work," she said. "My concern is about the majority of our students who are fairly bright kids who could do the work if we could get them in the class."

The question of retention and promotion had been a major debate among the board during the three meetings on minimum competency.Bristol advocated that teachers be allowed to place the students at higher grade levels even when they had not yet mastered the skills from the current grade so that the students could remain with children of their same "social age." But several members of the board continued to object to that placement policy, including Lou B. Cook who affered a plan that would have required sixth graders to read at no lower than the fifth grade level before they could be promoted. The board rejected her plan.

"I believe we should be free to place the students in an educational program that can best meet their needs," Bristol said.

Board Chairman Carlyle C. Ring Jr. disagreed with Bristol and argued in favor of Cook's motion.

"In the past we've done serious injury to youngsters because they perceive achievement as when they go from one grade to another," Ring said. "I think we deceive the parent, we deceive the child."

Board member Claudia C. Waller suggested following the superintendent's advice on the problem.

"This is the most tricky part of the policy . . ." she said. "We have hurt children when they think they are achieving and they're not. At the same time I don't want to tie the hands of the superintendent."

The new policy also provides a three-tier diploma system. The school system will award diplomas to students meeting all minimum competency requirements. Those whose grade point average is a 3.0 or better will receive honor citations on their diplomas. Students who complete high school but fail to meet all minimum requirements would be awarded special school system diplomas.

Last week's decision was the culmination of a discussion by the board on minimum competencies that dragged through its meeting on May 17 and 24. The action was spurred by a Virginia Board of Education requirement that graduates, beginning with the class of 1981, demonstrate competence in several broad areas: functional literacy in reading, writing and speaking, computation, U.S. history and culture and college entrance and job-seeking ability.

The state board voted in March to require a state-wide testing program to insure that reading and math minimum competencies are met before graduation, although the state board has not decided what those standards will be.

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

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