Test scores are up, dropout rates are down, and the number of students in gifted and talented programs in Maryland public schools has more than doubled in the last two years. But State Superintendent David W. Hornbeck achnowledges there is ferment in the counties, the state and the nation over secondary education.

Six major national investigations into junior high and high school education are under way. Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are conducting studies. Now, the Maryland State Department of Education is embarking on a three-year study of its own, which is likely to end in a series of by-laws designed to make courses more rigorous.

Educators point to several worrisome signs. The number of elective courses available to high school students has expanded at the expense of basic academic subjects, many say. Almost a third of the students admitted to Maryland state colleges need remedial classes in basic academic skills, according to a spokesman for the colleges.

To obtain a Maryland high school diploma, students must take 20 courses, for which they earn 20 credits, including eight in specified subjects. But because most students take six courses a year, large numbers of them need attend only two classes during their senior year.

Last year, almost 13,000 Maryland teen-agers dropped out of high school. Attendance is high by national standards, but 10 percent of secondary school students throughout the state are absent on an average day; in Baltimore City, the average is 20 percent. In the last decade, while enrollment in public secondary schools fell from 403,000 to 365,000, the number of students attending private secondary schools increased by 24 percent to 39,000.

Educators say they need to shore up standards, challenge students more, and convince them of the value of a full secondary education.

Preliminary results of many of the current investigations suggest narrowing the choice of elective courses. Students are likely to find themselves with fewer electives, more structured programs, more credits to earn and, quite simply, more work to do, according to education officials involved in the studies.

Hornbeck discounts suggestions that this represents a "repeal of the '60s." He says he simply seeks to ensure that Maryland schools answer to the changing demands of society.

The superintendent said the state study should help answer the questions the public is asking about secondary schools:

"Should we begin to get rid of the plethora of electives that have grown up in the last 10 or 20 years? Should we narrow the focus? My predilections are that we should narrow electives, increase the number of credits necessary, increase requirements for foreign language, math, and that more time should be spent learning outside the school house."

The standard six-hour school day and 12-year school career must also be questioned, Hornbeck said.

"Was there an 11th Commandment saying it should be this way? The way we act suggests there was. . . . Maybe the school day should be longer--seven hours rather than six. Maybe for some kids 11 or 13 years of secondary school would be best. Why the uniformity of 12 years?"

Hornbeck also suggests that vocational education students should attend school for longer hours, but fewer days, leaving more time for on-the-job training.

He discounts the possibility of graded diplomas, which have been proposed by some educators ("We have to ensure that there aren't first- and second-class diplomas"), but said specialty diplomas in such subjects as vocational education and commerce would allow "a tailoring of requirements that could make each of them courses of study more rigorous."

The state study could mean harder work for students and could lead to greater uniformity in demands and expectations of school districts, and individual schools, across the state, Hornbeck said.

Howard County students, for example, attend school 6 1/2 hours a day while others attend for six. At High Point Senior High School in Beltsville, students take the eight courses made compulsory by the state before they graduate but four of the six courses a student takes each year must be chosen from a list of hard-core academic subjects like mathematics, foreign languages and science subjects. This is not the case in most schools.

But by the time the state arrives at conclusions some local jurisdictions may be one step ahead. Louise F. Waynant, cochairman of the Prince George's task force on secondary education, said her group already is pondering many of the questions Hornbeck asked.

In the 1960s, she said, "society was going through a lot of questioning--questioning of the establishment. Change in education reflected what was happening in society. It went a little too far. We got away from 'the basics.' "

High Point Principal Francis Tracy, a member of the Prince George's task force, believes junior high and high schools must also take some of society's more specialized needs into account. He would like to see a mandatory "computer literacy" course and a course in "oral communications" designed to help students express themselves well by speaking.

An Anne Arundel County study has tentatively recommended that the number of elective courses be reduced and that a series of special diplomas be created to encourage students to take more challenging courses. According to assistant superintendent Edward Mitchell, 20 of the 60 English courses now available in the county's schools would be eliminated under the recommendations, driver's education would no longer be an in-school credit course and English credits could not be obtained for doing yearbook and student newspaper work, as is now the case.

Mitchell said the committee felt students should take more courses. To side-step the 20-credit state requirement, the committee has recommended "differential diplomas" earned with additional credits and issued by the county, to go along with the state diploma.

College-bound students may not need this incentive: Maryland's colleges and universities are already showing their dissatisfaction with the caliber of freshmen by tightening entrance requirements. The state college system, which comprises Bowie, Coppin, Frostburg, Salisbury and Towson, will begin to phase in new requirements in 1984. By 1989, a student seeking admission will be required to have credits in English composition, American literature, English literature, geometry, world civilization, a laboratory-based biology course, a second laboratory-based science subject, and algebra, all in addition to credits now required for a high school diploma.

A task force at the University of Maryland, which is in the process of reducing the number of freshman admissions by demanding higher grades and SAT scores from applicants, is examining the possibility of instituting similar requirements.

"What we are trying to do is to decrease the number of students coming in under-prepared," said Patricia G. Hauk, associate executive director for academic affairs for the state college system. Last fall, 29 percent of students admitted to the colleges needed remedial classes to learn what Hauk says they should have learned in elementary school: "reading, writing and arithmetic." In 1976, 32 percent of the students were in remedial classes. "To move from 32 to 29 percent in six years is not encouraging," she said.

New requirements might not reduce the number of students needing remedial courses, Hauk said, but might allow the colleges to "move from remediation at the elementary school level to correcting high school deficiencies."