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

The two presidents, William G. Sykes of Maryland and Allix B. James of Virginia, head appointed state boards that have emerged in recent years as major forces in shaping education in their states, even though primary power rests in the hands of 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 state school 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 federal government administrator with a dry sense of humor.

Ironically, Sykes, of Maryland, grew up and was educated in Virginia. The son of two teachers, he was born and raised in Halifax County, a poor rural area near the North Carolina line. He took degrees in social work in Virgnia's Hampton Institute and at Howard University and worked his way up rapidly in the Baltimore city government.

Eventually, he served as an assistant to Mayor William Donald Schaefer and as 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, a Texan by birth, is the son of a Baptist minister and is an ordained minister himself. He attended school in his hometwon of Marshall, Tex., and in 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 teacher, dean, vice president and finally president of the university from 1970 to 1979. In 1957, he earned a doctorate in theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Richmond.

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

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

Like many other educators, James has been cautious in supporting the minimum competency tests approved by the Virginia legislature. Recently, he voted to give students who still had not passed the exam three chances to do so during their senior year.

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 on the tests. But the pass rate in Baltimore's heavily black high schools is substantially lower than the statewide average.

Maryland Board President Sykes said, just after other board members unanimously picked him for the job last summer, "I appreciate the concern of those who opposed competency tests, and I will be ever vigilant of the dangers they cite. 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 as 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 conscionable 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 fiscal 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 craziness."

In Virginia, James, who was appointed to the Virginia Board of Education in 1975 by then-Gov. Mills Godwin, has won warm praise as a community leader throughout his many years in Richmond. He also has drawn some muted criticism for being too close to Virginia's white business establishment.

On 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 or 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. The sooner we get that out of our minds, the better. We shouldn't be polarizing the community."

James contends that there is more than one way to make a mark for minorities.

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