In Norfolk, a teacher wrote to a local university about a course he wanted to take.

"Please be sure to tell me more about the course," the letter said, "and whether it will be beneficial to a teacher who's major is Early Childhood Ed.Please state the time, date, and station sponsored by . . . "

In Washington a high school teacher said she wanted to talk to her history class about civil rights. She wrote the topic on the blackboard, misspelling it: "Civille Right."

Alarmed by examples like these and fearful that many teachers may share the academic deficiencies of their students, state governments and local school boards are moving to impose competency tests on new teachers.

Their efforts have drawn fire from the 1.8-million-member National Education Association and its state teacher groups.

"What test is going to tell who can teach well and who can't?" declared Suzanne Kelly, president of the Virginia Education Association. "There are so many problems with a paper and pencil test that we can't support it. We think you should look at a lot of things [in licensing a teacher], and not give weight to one test."

Despite this argument, the Virginia General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in March to require all new teachers to take a test before they can be licensed, starting in July 1980. The State Board of Education has selected the test -- the National Teachers Examination -- and embarked on a two-year project to establish passing scores.

In Washington the city school board has supported a similar testing requirement, but so far no decisions have been made on what tests to use or when to require them.

Even though no statewide requirements has been proposed in Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have conducted their own tests for new teachers for the past five years.

About half the job applicants in both counties have failed the tests. But officials said there is now such a surplus of teachers because of declining student enrollments that they have plenty of qualified applicants to choose from.

"There are so many stories about teachers using shakey syntax, unruly paragraphs and exotic spelling that we have to make sure there's minimal literacy in the classroom," said Del. George Grayson, a Democrat from Williamsburg and professor at William & Mary, who introduced Virginia's teacher testing bill last winter.

"We're requiring competency tests for students before they can graduate from high school," Grayson continued. "It seems to be a logical extension to have proficiency tests for teachers, too. We have to be able to say that the people going to teach in our classrooms at least have attained some basic competencies."

The moves in the Washington area to test new teachers are part of a nationwide pattern that has included new test requirements during the last three years in local districts from Connecticut to Texas and in four Southern stated -- Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

The New York State Board of Regents is considering a proposal to test new teachers throughout the state in addition to New York City and Buffalo where such tests are required now.

At present, teachers are licensed in Maryland, D.C., Virginia, and 44 other states solely on the basis of taking the proper courses at colleges with teacher training programs approved by state agencies.

In virtually all these states teaching is the only licensed profession without a licensing exam.

Virginia, for example, requires state licenses and examinations for doctors, lawyers, accountants, social workers, architects, barbers, embalmers and practitioners in more than 25 other fields.

In the last 19th century, when most teachers attended a two-year normal school or less, applicants for teaching jobs usually had to pass written or oral exams given by local superintendents.

As training was lengthened to four years of college, virtually all tests were dropped on the theory that more training insured quality, said Russ Vlaanderen, research director of the Education Commission of the States.

Officials in many school districts now doubt that teacher-training colleges can be trusted to produce competent teachers, Vlaaderen said.

"All too often we have teachers who haven't reached the level of literacy that we need," said former D.C. school board president Conrad Smith, "even though they've all graduated from college. We have to do something about it ourselves."

But efforts to do something have moved slowly through the D.C. school administration even though Superintendent Vincent Reed outlined a plan two years ago to require new teachers to pass a written exam and give a practical demonstration that they can teach well in addition to taking the proper college courses.

"We're still working on it," said George Margolies, legal counsel to Reed. "We have to make sure it's validated carefully because of all the screams we'll be getting."

Virginia officials said they decided to require the National Teacher Examination because it already is in widespread use. The exam is prepared by the Educational Testing Service, which also writes the College Board and Graduate Record exams. Last year it was taken by about 80,000 prospective teachers around the country.

Even though all new teachers in Virginia will be required to take the test by next July, ETS said the state would be unable to set a passing score until one year later. The testing service said the extra year would be needed to conduct studies to make sure the test covered material actually taught at teacher training colleges in Virginia and that the cut-off scores reflect the knowledge that panels of local experts believe is needed to teach in the state.

The elaborate studies are an out-growth of a series of legal challenges to the test spearheaded by the NEA during the early 1970s.

The suits charged that the test was discriminatory because blacks generally scored much lower on it than whites.

For example, in South Carolina 83 percent of the black applicants but only 17 percent of whites scored below a state-required cut-off in 1976.

Despite this disparity, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld South Carolina's use of the test in early 1978. The high court summarily affirmed an appeals court decision that the test was nondiscriminatory. That decision relied heavily on an ETS validation study showing, the appeals court said, that the test disclosed "the minimum amount of knowledge necessary to effective teaching."

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the District of Columbia and many other big cities, generally has gone along with tests for licensing new teachers. But the AFT has urged that teachers be involved in choosing the tests and that no current teachers be tested.

In Virginia several members of the State Board of Education have suggested that after the tests for new teachers are established, similar exams might be required of current teachers every few years.

"That wouldn't be fair," said Del. Grayson, who introduced the teacher testing bill. "We shouldn't change the rules in the middle of the game for teachers brought in [without a test].

"There are so many applicants for each [teaching] job now," Grayson added, "that we want to get the best we can into the classroom . . . I realize that doing well on a test doesn't mean they'll all be good teachers. Motivation and personality are important too. But teachers need some basic [academic] competence, and that's what a test can show."