D.C. school officials, citing budget constraints, have decided to cut nearly in half the number of city truant officers even though high absenteeism has plagued the city schools and new Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie says improving student attendance is one of her primary goals.

School officials said yesterday that l3 of the schools' 31 attendance officers, including the only Spanish-speaking officer, will be laid off or assigned to other jobs. Attendance officers phone parents or visit homes when students are frequently absent. They also are responsible for referring cases of chronic truants to the courts.

The cuts will hit hardest in the city's 29 junior high schools where truancy is the most widespread, according to attendance officers, and where previously, each junior high had its own attendance officer. Now, there will be only 13 attendance officers for the more than 160 schools in the city system.

In the 1978-79 academic year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, D.C. schools as a whole had a student absentee rate of 16.2 percent, more than double the national rate of 6.5 percent, according to National Center for Education Statistics. Absenteeism has run even higher in junior and senior high schools, exceeding 20 percent in some schools in past years, according to school system figures.

"They might as well start holding classes on street corners," said J.M. Smith, attendance officer for several schools in Anacostia. Smith and several law enforcement officials say that truancy is directly related to juvenile crime.

McKenzie said yesterday that school attendance is still one of her priorities, but attendance officers have to be cut so that classroom teachers can be saved. She said she would encourage principals to seek out "volunteer cadres" from the community to help them get truant students back in school.

Jerry L. Coward, principal of Roper Junior High on Meade Street NE, said several students still have not shown up for school since it opened last week, but he has no attendance officer assigned to Roper to seek out these students.

Previously, attendance officers served five to seven schools each, but their work load probably will double now, officials said.

Claude Moten, principal at Kelly Miller Junior High, 49th Street NE, said he fears that if he loses his current attendance officer, it might destroy Kelly Miller's successful attendance incentive program, whereby each class competes to have perfect attendance each day and students are rewarded at the end of the year with pennants and certificates.

Kelly Miller's attendance officer, Martha Carr O'Kelley, also has enlisted the help of the D.C. police from the 6th District and several area senior citizens to fight the school's truancy problem.

Attendance officers were among the 161 teachers, school social workers and psychologists, who received layoff notices this month. So far, the system has rehired 97 of them, although most are not doing their previous jobs, according to schools spokeswoman Janis Cromer.

Most of the rehired employes, have taken as much as a $4,000 cut in annual salary.

Washington Teachers Union President William H. Simons complained that many of the teachers who were cut taught business education, home economics and industrial arts -- subjects that provide practical job skills.

McKenzie, who has said previously that she believes the city's high schools should do more to prepare youngsters to enter the job market, said yesterday teachers in these subject areas were cut because fewer students signed up for their courses this year than last.

She said she is somewhat concerned that school principals and counselors are discouraging students from taking such nonacademic classes.