When it all began, the idea was fairly simple: High school students should possess the simple skills required to balance a checkbook or fill out a job application before being awarded diplomas.

But by the time Fairfax County 10th graders sat down recently to have those skills tested, the simple idea had turned into a two-year bureaucratic tangle involving the Virginia Board of Education, the General Assembly, local school districts and teachers.

As far as Fairfax is concerned, there are still problems.

"It's unbelievable," said Jacqueline Benson, associate superintendent for Fairfax Schools. "We've had communication problems with the state before, but this is maybe the worst brouhaha of all."

The confusion began in 1976 when the General Assembly and the state Board of Education decided local school districts should test students' competency in basic skills. But they provided neither money nor guidelines.

Confusion increased this spring when the General Assembly changed the law. Instead of requiring local school districts to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] up their own tests, the legislature decided to require a uniform, statewide test drafted by the state Board of Education.

The board quickly chose the type of test it wanted to use. But the board went down to the wire on determining some essentials, such as the passing grade. It was not until three days before the tests were given that the board set a passing score at 70. Teachers picked up testing materials and received instructions on testing procedures only one day before they began giving the tests.

The state test, covering reading and mathematics, finally was administered to 75,000 Virginia 10th graders Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. The class of 1981, this year's 10th graders, is the first class required to pass the test.

The test did not appear to trouble most students.

"It was so easy, it was almost insulting," said Holly Harper, a Woodson High School sophomore. Harper, an A student, added that "even people who aren't all that good students said it wasn't hard."

Her remarks reflected the opinions of 15 other sophomores, with A and B averages, who took the test at other county high schools. A few C students admitted finding some difficulty with parts of the test, but they said it was not difficult overall.

"Everyone took the tests very seriously. They understood they needed to pass this test to graduate," said Gloria Eperson, a guidance counselor at Grovetown High School. "And I think the tests did pretty well at measuring what they were supposed to."

Benson, however, said she believes some of the questions were misleading, particularly in reading.

Even now, after the first tests have been given, school districts question certain requirements - such as giving all foreign students the test regardless of English proficiency - and wonder about the future of the program.

"If it's run anything like what we've gone through already, we've got cause to wonder." said one school official.

Many school districts, including Fairfax, Alexandria, and Arlington, already had spent more than a year and thousands of dollars to complete their own minimum competency programs before the General Assembly changed the law.

Arlington, because it had given its own competency test before the General Assembly acted, was exempted from using the state test this fall.

The concept of minimum competencies came to Virginia in 1974, when a statewide committee of educators recommended that the Virginia Board of Education require students to master certain "survival skills" as a graduation requirement.

The suggestion reflected a national effort to make a high school diploma more credible by assuring the public that high schools were preparing students to handle tasks ordinary adults might face.

Two years later, the state board made competencies a graduation requirement. Then, the General Assembly, because of interest the issue attracted, made the requirement a state law, to be carried out by individual school districts.

"There was a lot of speculation there would be some problems, but nobody predicted there would be all the steps we've gone through," said Richard Boyer, assistant Virginia superintendent of schools.

During 1977, under the broad guidelines of the General Assembly, local school districts developed specific items on which students would be tested. The guidelines required students to be literate in reading, writing and speaking, to be able to do simple mathematics, to have a general knowledge of U.S. history and culture and to have college-entrance and job-seeking abilities.

The General Assembly, however, was not specific. It did not require localities to give the tests to judge student competency. Nor did the Assembly say which graduating class would be affected first by the law.

The vagueness of the law, especially the lack of an effective date, caused some school systems to "panic," in the words of one official, because they assumed seniors would have to pass the test or be held back. Shortly afterwards, the problem was resolved when the state board said the law would first apply to the class of 1981.

School districts, including Fairfax, continued to pressure the state for guidance and financial help while developing their own competency programs. Fairfax schools spent about $100,000 developing their program, according to Ronald Savage, Fairfax schools curriculum specialist.

The pleas of local districts got a dramatic response in March when the General Assembly changed its stance and voted to require the statewide test and to allow the state board to decide the areas that should be tested.

In response, the state board decided to limit the testing areas to reading - no writing or speaking - and simple mathematics. Local school districts were told to develop their own tests for U.S. history and culture and college-entrance and job-seeking abilities.

"Since March," Boyer said. "we've had eight to 10 people working full time only on minimum competencies. It's been a real rush to test the class of '81 in time so we can correct the problems of those who don't pass before they graduate."

In fact, the sudden change by the General Assembly left the state without time to develop its own test. Because of the time constraints, Boyer said, the state bought a commercial test that probably will be used only two years until Virginia develops its own test. The commercial test is estimated to cost the state $135,000 each year.

The rush to start the program also prevented any pilot testing, commonly used to set a passing score based on student performance. The state board, frustrated after postponing the tests because no pilot test had been done, arbitrarily decided Oct. 27 on a passing score of 70.

Because the exam was not field tested, this year's 10th graders who fail may take a refined version of the test again in April, when it also will be given to Virginia ninth graders.

Fairfax school officials are as concerned about the future of the program as they have been about its history. Who is going to pay for remedial training of students who fail the test? Will students who fail the test but finish high school be given a certificate of attendance or a similar document in lieu of a diploma? Why should Fairdax schools pay for developing tests in areas other than reading and math if the state plans to do the testing itself in two years?

Some school officials call many of the testing requirements "laughable." For example, the state requires foreign students to take the test regardless of English proficiency, while the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare requires Fairfax to teach all foreign students in their native languages as well as English.

Fairfax is standing against both orders, calling them unreasonable. The county has exempted foreign newcomers with no English proficiency from taking the test.

Tests in braille and large type were to be provided for visually impaired students, but since they didn't arrive in time, those students will be tested in April.

School board member Toni Carney summed up the feeling in Fairfax on the minimum competency effort: "It's not any one thing about the program. It's the way the whole thing was handled. It's too late to get the toothpaste back in the tube, so what do we do with this mess now?"