A "creeping elitism" that excludes children of blue-collar and black neighborhoods from college preparatory courses has found its way into Virginia's public education system, according to the state's top educational official.

"We tell ourselves that the brightest students are in the academic program," state Education Secretary John Casteen told a conference in Roanoke. But, he said, "That's not the way it is in 1982."

He cited recent studies by a University of Virginia research institute that show that black students are twice as likely as whites to drop out of high school, half as likely to take college preparatory courses and half (or less) as likely to graduate from college, once enrolled.

Casteen said the problem seems to stem from the fact that 10 to 15 percent of high school students are channeled onto a vocational "track," about 33 percent onto a college-prep track and the remainder end up in a "general education" grouping that lets them graduate without proper preparation for a career.

Although some of the brightest students are in general education, Casteen said, there is no effective measure of their performance.

Casteen urged curriculum reforms that would force more students to take college preparatory courses.