Next spring, for the first time, high school seniors in Virginia must meet state minimum competency requirements to receive their diplomas. Already, according to results of tests given last year, more than 90 percent of the seniors in Northern Virginia have met those requirements. But area educators express concern that the majority of students who have not passed the tests are minorities.

Students who passed the tests when they were given last year will not be required to take them again. Students still have three chances to pass the tests before graduation next spring.

In reading and math, Fairfax County students achieved the highest pass rate, with 97.9 percent of the 10,814 seniors having passed both tests. That is followed closely by Alexandria, where 94 percent of the 809 seniors have passed the reading test and 97 percent have passed the math test. In Arlington, 93 percent of the nearly 1,200 seniors have passed the reading tests, while 90 percent have passed the math test.

The reading and math tests were prepared by the state Education Department and are administered uniformly throughout Virginia.Each school system was allowed to develop its own certification process in social studies, with approval by the state.

In Arlington, for example, students must pass a county test in social studies; in Alexandria and Fairfax County students must meet certain course requirements.

The premise behind all the competency requirements is that students be able to demonstrate basic knowledge needed to go further in education or work.

Minimum competency requirements have created controversy in nearly every state where they have been instituted, including Virginia, because some educators believe they discriminate against minorities.

In math and reading, the tests basically involve a "common-sense" application of skills and information students should have learned by the time they reach the 12th grade. For example, questions might deal with simple math problems, balancing a checkbook, making change, filling out a job application, reading the instructions on a medicine bottle or determining which detergent is cheaper by the pound.

In social studies, depending on the school system, students might conduct mock elections, learn how to register to vote or be required to show an understanding of various historical periods.

State and local school officials say they are concerned about minorities' performances on the tests, and several districts have instituted programs to help those students.

Richard L. Boyd, Virginia's assistant superintendent for testing and evaluation, agrees that the problems minority students have had with the tests need to be examined. Statewide, 97 percent of the 70,000 high school seniors have passed the tests. But, says Boyer, "there is a much higher percentage of blacks in that 3 percent (who have not passed the tests) than white students. There is nationwide concern about (minorities' performances on the tests) and we are concerned about it ourselves."

In Fairfax, 96 percent of black seniors have passed the reading and math tests and 95 percent of other minorities have passed them.

But Fairfax appears to be an exception in Northern Virginia. In Arlington, 77 percent of the black seniors and 68 percent of other minorities passed the reading test, compared with 95 percent of the white seniors. The figures are similar for math, where 78 percent of blacks and 88 percent of other minorities passed, compared with 96 percent of whites.

In Alexandria, whites also scored higher than blacks and other minority groups. Although school officials emphasize that only 58 seniors have failed the test, they say 65 percent of those are black and 21 percent are from other minority groups.

In social studies, Arlington reports that 79 percent of the seniors passed the test given last year. John Crowder, director of testing for Arlington, believes that figure will increase this year, since many of the test questions were on material covered in senior-year courses.

Students who fail the test may satisfy the requirements by passing a social studies course.

While avoiding specific examples, Crowder said Arlington's test might include questions "on how to read a graph that might appear in a newspaper or on tax forms, or how to read a map.

"The tests could also ask the student to list the three branches of government or give a series of events, such as World War I and World War II, and ask which came first, as opposed to asking questions like, 'When was George Washington's birthday?' It tests concepts and knowledge, but it's not so specific that it's minutiae."

Still, in social studies as in reading and math, white students outperformed blacks and other minorities. On the test, 53 percent of blacks and 46 percent of other minorities failed the exam, compared with a 12 percent failure rate among white students.

Crowder said there is concern over the lower number of minority students passing the tests. They are being given intensive instruction at school, at special skill centers and through a home-tutoring program, Crowder said.

In Alexandria, students meet the social studies requirement by completing courses in U.S. and Virginia history and government, and a world studies course such as world history or world geography.

Only 62 of last year's juniors failed the 11th-grade course. Those who fail the senior-year course will have to attend summer school to qualify for a diploma.

In Fairfax County, students must complete certain courses. Beatrice Cameron, assistant superintendent for student services and special education, said students are given diagnostic tests to determine their strengths and weaknesses in social studies, and teachers then try to tailor instruction to meet students' individual needs. To date, 96 percent of the seniors have passed the social studies requirement.

Despite some problems, state officials believe the competency tests generally are meeting their basic purpose.

"At this stage of our devlopment, I'm not sure this is the kind of program we're going to have forever and ever," state education official Boyer said. "But it seems to be working well . . .

"Of course, we haven't reached the point where we have a real showdown -- when students are denied a diploma. I guess out of 70,000 (seniors) it would be impractical to think that someone wouldn't pass. We're all very much interested in seeing what the final outcome will be."