With little fanfare but considerable significance, Maryland and Virginia for the first time have blacks serving as presidents of their state boards of education.

The two presidents, Allix B. James of Virginia and William G. Sykes of Maryland, both head appointed state boards that have emerged in recent years as major forces in shaping education in their states, even though primary power rests with local school boards.

Both states are putting into place statewide minimum competency tests that students will be required to pass before graduating from high school. They also are at the center of major debates on school financing.

Of the two men, Sykes, 42, has been the more vigorous partisan of his state board's heightened role. James, 57, has been somewhat cautious, though he has given strong backing to Virginia state Superintendent S. John Davis, the former Fairfax County superintendent who is emerging as Virginia's most activist state education official in decades.

"I see my presence as giving me a special responsibility to be the advocate for black children, city children and any other minority group in the school population," Sykes said in a recent interview. I'm also very much interested in rural children. I was once one myself. In many ways, there is not that much advocacy for them in the state apparatus."

James said he is "fighting for quality education for all school children all over Virginia, particularly the disadvantaged and those with special problems."

Although Sykes and James hold similar jobs in neighboring states, the two men have never met. Their personalities and backgrounds are quite different -- James, an imposing former university president; Sykes, a low-key government administrator with a dry sense of humor.

Sykes, the son of two teachers, was born and raised in Halifax County, Virginia, a poor rural area near the North Carolina line. He took degrees in social work at Virginia's Hampton Institute and at Howard University and worked his way up rapidly in the Baltimore city government, where he served as an assistant to Mayor William Donald Shafer and was director of the mayor's office of human resources. He later spent 4 1/2 years as deputy director of the Maryland Department of Human Resources before becoming deputy director of the Peace Corps last fall. Sykes now commutes by train from his home in Baltimore to an office overlooking Lafayette Park across from the White House.

James, born in Marshall, Tex., is the son of a Baptist minister and is an ordained minister himself. He attended school in Marshall, Baltimore and Nashville.

He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Virginia Union University in Richmond, where he spent the next 33 years as a theology professor, dean, vice president and, from 1970 to 1979, president. In holds a doctorate in theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Richmond.

James now is president emeritus at Virginia Union and is again teaching theology there.

James was appointed to the Virginia Board of Education in 1957 by then-governor Mills Godwin. As the board's senior member, James was chosen unanimously as its president last winter.

A press release, distributed by James just after his election, made a point of noting that he had been the "first black" in several other groups, including chairman of the Richmond Planning Commission, president of the American Association of Theological Schools, member of the Vepco board of directors and a member of the Richmond Kiwanis chapter.

In Richmond James has won warm praise as an energtic community leader but has drawn some muted criticism for being too close to Virginia's white business establishment.

One official of a statewide black organization criticized James as being "too conservative." Another contended James "had not been a strong advocate of a black view of a black perspective."

The critics refused to let their names be used, and James, in an interview later, called such anonymous criticism "cowardly."

"If they think I've done something wrong, let them come out of the shadows and discuss it," he said. "Some (blacks) say that anybody who works with white people is conservative. Nothing could be more erroneous. We shouldn't be polarizing the community."

As president of Virginia Union, a black college founded by the Bapist church in 1865, James attracted major donations from Richmond's business community, including $2 million from Sidney Lewis, president of Best Products, one of the largest private firms in the state. In recent years, however, enrollment at the Virginia Union has dipped slightly and the university has operated at a deficit.

"Listen, a man isn't going to be appointed to the Vepco board or the state board of education by Godwin if he's going to throw them a lot of curves," one state official remarked, "and he couldn't raise money for his college if he acted like a militant. But that doesn't mean he just sits on his hands."

James added, "There are several ways to get a job done. One way is to march and protest, but we also need those who can sit around the conference table and negotiate."

Earlier this year, James joined other members of the Virginia education board in supporting a major increase in state aid to local schools -- far larger than Gov. John N. Dalton favored or the legislature approved.

On the question of the new minimum competency tests, James, like other educators, has been cautious in supporting the exams. Last month, he voted to give seniors who still hadn't passed the exam three chances to do so during their final year.

"How did those students get to the 12th grade in the first place?" James asked. "Someone must have certified that they mastered the basic skills in their courses and moved them on. We should do everything possible so that these students won't be held back any more in their educational progress."

Even though blacks make up about 25 percent of Virginia's public school enrollment, they account for more than 50 percent of the high school juniors who have not passed the competency exams. In Maryland, where blacks make up almost 30 percent of all public school students, the state education department has not collected data on the performance by race. But the pass rate in Baltimore's heavily black high school is substantially lower than the state-wide average.

"I appreciate the concern of those who opposed competency tests, and I will be ever vigilant of the dangers they cite," Maryland board President Sykes declared just after other board members unanimously picked him for the job last summer. "However, unless someone comes forth with a better way to demonstrate that children have not been cheated out of their birthright, i.e., a good, free public education, then I will support and insist upon the use of competency tests.

In a recent interview, Sykes expanded on his initial comments.

"If black kids want to get into the Army they have to take the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. If they want to get into college, they have to take the SATs. To not have competency tests in the schools is to ignore reality. We have a major responsibility, especially to minority youngsters, to prepare students for what they'll have to face day to day."

The Maryland education board did not push for as large an increase in state aid as did the state board in Virginia. But it did press for major changes in the aid distribution formula to give more state money to school districts such as Baltimore, which have a low ratio of taxable wealth per pupil, and relatively less to wealthy districts such Montgomery County.

Sykes said the new state aid formula passed by the legislature in March was "a tremendous step in the right direction," but he added: "We're still not there yet. I favor still more equalization and still more state dollars."

Last year, Baltimore and three rural Maryland counties filed a lawsuit charging that Maryland's system of financing education unconstitutionally discriminated against poor school districts.

The suit is still pending, and since the state board is a defendant in the case, Sykes said he could not comment on it directly. But he declared in a statement last year:

"The most critical and least unconscionable issue in Maryland education is the fact that, by accident of geography, one child may have substantially fewer educational resources at his or her disposal than another. . . . This cannot continue to be . . . because it is wrong and it is unproductive."

Sykes also has been outspoken in his views on school desegregation. He strongly favors equal opportunity, but says he doesn't like busing or racial balance plans.

"I think any policy that says a black child has to sit in a classroom with a white child in order to learn to his maximum potential is a racist policy which suggests that blacks are intellectual inferiors and need to be stimulated by persons of another race," Sykes declared.

"Where busing makes practical or educational or physical sense, then we ought to have it, but busing for the sake of busing is nonsense. If you're going through that to make each school have the same percentage of black and white pupils, that's a craziness."