The $64,000 question, said Richmond School Superintendent Richard Hunter last week at a conference in Alexandria, is this: Who is responsible for the fact that black high school students in Virginia fail the state competency tests in disproportionate numbers?

A potentially more explosive question was raised by the next speaker, Joel Cunningham, an attorney for the Virginia Legal Aid Society: Who's going to get sued?

"I'm here as the bad guy," said Cunningham, who has represented black students in discrimination cases against the Halifax County Board of Education. "I'm going to talk about how you can sue school boards."

There were more of these questions than answers at the one-day conference of school administrators and board members from Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, as well as Richmond, at George Washington High School. The educators were invited by the Northern Virginia branch of the Washington Urban League to discuss the state-mandated tests and their troubling implications.

Under state law, beginning in 1981 all students will be required to pass both the reading and math sections of the test before they can graduate from high school. Students who fail either portion of the test will be given a certificate of attendance rather than a diploma.

"Denying diplomas can have a disastrous impact on students," said Cunningham. "They can be stigmatized for the rest of their lives."

When the tests were first administered to 10th graders throughout the state in the fall of 1978, only 10.9 percent of white students failed either or both parts, compared to 41.8 percent of blacks.

Blacks improved when the test was given again in the spring of 1979 to 9th graders and 10th graders who failed the fall test. But even with the improvement, 34 percent of blacks failed at least one part of the 159-question exam. The failure rate for whites was only 9 percent.

"Obviously something is wrong with either the tests or public school education," said a spokesman for the Washington Urban League to the Alexandria School Board last spring.

School administrations in Northern Virginia have instituted special tutoring programs for students who failed one or both parts of the test. But local authorities refuse to take full blame for the results. Many of the students who have failed are chronic truants, they claim, who have put themselves outside the school's power to educate.

Donald Dearborn, an assistant school superintendent for Alexandria schools, told the audience of 200 educators and parents that of the 331 students who failed the competency tests in Alexandria last spring, 45 percent had been absent for 20 or more days preceding the tests.

Dearborn also said he had documentation to prove there had been some communication with the parents of every student who failed the competency tests. The parents had been informed of the significance of that failure and of the remedial programs available.

"School administrations are taking steps to cover themselves," said Val Martin, president of the Education Association of Alexandria. "That's part of the reason for the new [stricter] attendance policies."

Martin, who teaches home economics at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, said teachers are also concerned that students who fail to earn diplomas may try to sue individual teachers.

The school administrators were put into a position of defending tests which many of them publicly oppose. In Alexandria, outgoing school superintendent John Bristol has stated strong opposition to competency tests. s

"One of the fears is that we'll set up a whole school system just to pass tests," said Alexandria school board member Claudia Waller.

In a press release issued by the Washington Urban League, the concern was made more personal:

"The high failure rates have sparked concern in black communities. Minority parents are worried about the overall impact of a failing score, since standardized tests are often used to select, reject and classify people from cradle to grave."