When Maryland state education officials announced earlier this month that 60 percent of the state's 9th graders had failed a proficiency test in math, state school superintendent David W. Hornbeck wasn't surprised.

Hornbeck himself had set the passing score of 80 in mid-March, with the test results already on his desk. Even though he knew how high the failure rate would be, Hornbeck said, he decided to stick close to the average passing score recommended earlier by a sampling of 4,800 parents, students, educators, and citizens around the state.

"The question was not how many kids do we want to make sure pass the test," Hornbeck said, "but what level is necessary to make sure that by the time youngsters graduate from high school they at least are able to be minimally functional in mathematics.

"It was a source of pain that a significant number of youngsters had failed, but I am absolutely confident that by the time the test is required for graduation from high school in 1987 the vast majority of kids will be successful. Tens of thousands of youngsters will be better off as a consequence."

Locally, about 73 percent of the ninth graders in Prince George's County and 35 percent of those in Montgomery failed the trial run of the test given last fall. In Baltimore, which had the lowest performance in the state, 82 percent failed, prompting a complaint from the city schools' testing director that the passing score established by Hornbeck was "highly unrealistic."

Steven M. Frankel, director of educational accountability for Montgomery County schools, charged that Hornbeck had set a much higher standard for the minimum competency test in math than for a similar test in reading that already is being enforced as a graduation requirement.

But Prince George's school superintendent Edward J. Feeney declined to criticize the mathematics test. "Our first responsibility now is to move forward," Feeney said, "and implement the changes to improve the scores for next year."

Since the mid-1970s, school boards and legislatures in 37 states, responding to complaints about "worthless" diplomas and high school graduates who can barely read, have adopted minimum competency standards. Testing as a graduation requirement is now reqired by districts in 18 states, including New York, California and Virginia.

The District of Columbia plans to use its own version for seniors who graduate next year, but the results of its preliminary test, given to juniors in December, have not been announced. In Virginia, minimum competency tests in both reading and mathematics were required for graduation starting with the spring of 1981. In both that year and 1982, virtually all students eventually passed both exams.

The pattern in virtually all states has been the same. Failure rates were high when the exams were first given, usually to freshmen or sophomores, but after several more chances to take the test, the number of students actually having diplomas denied for failing them has been about one percent or less, according to the Education Commission of the States.

This has partly been a result of remedial classes, closely geared to the test questions missed, that have become a regular part of the competency programs. The results also reflect the standards themselves, which generally are low, covering work that is part of the school curriculum before ninth grade. "Either the standard for the tests is so easy that it isn't very meaningful," said Harvard education professor Stephen K. Bailey, who led a panel that studied the tests shortly before his death last year, "or it could be hard and that's politically unacceptable" because large numbers of students would fail.

The math competency test is part of Maryland's Project Basic, a program launched by Hornbeck and the Maryland State Board of Education in 1977. Its reading test requirement went into effect with last year's senior class. Last week the state board voted to require all graduates to pass tests in writing and citizenship as well as in mathematics, starting in 1987.

The writing exam was given a tryout in early May, but has not yet been scored. The citizenship examination, largely covering Maryland and U.S. government and history, is scheduled for a trial run next fall.

All the tests, except writing, are multiple-choice exams without a time limit. Students who fail must be given special remedial work, and are allowed to repeat the test twice a year and, if necessary, at the end of summer school after their class graduates.

Last June only 40 seniors throughout Maryland were denied diplomas because they hadn't passed the reading exam, which was required for the first time. The pass rate was 99.93 percent of the 54,661 seniors who had completed all their courses. Four years earlier, when the same group of students was in the ninth grade, about 22 percent failed their first try at the exam.

And last fall 10.5 percent of 54,000 ninth graders failed the reading proficiency test at the same time that 60 percent failed the exam in math.

"I don't think we have a crisis in math or a major success in reading," Frankel said. "What we have are very different cut scores the pass-or-fail point for passing the two subjects. If we switched the cut scores, we'd switch the results." On standardized achievement tests in the two subjects, Maryland eighth graders have identical average scores--both slightly above the national norms.

Richard M. Petre, the state associate deputy superintendent in charge of Project Basic, said, "We're dealing with the core concepts that all kids should know something about."

The Maryland State Board of Education has adopted long checklists of what these concepts should be--74 in reading and 30 in math. These include academic skills that schools have traditionally taught such as adding, multiplying and using the dictionary. Others put school skills to practical use in "real world" situations, such as making change, filling out tax and insurance forms and even using a television program guide.

The lists are based partly on surveys of what state residents think students should know to "function competently" as adults. But by themselves they tell little about the level of sophistication and achievement that students are expected to reach. The state's test director, Paul L. Williams, said that that quality is determined by the tests themselves and the passing scores selected.

For the reading requirement, which the state board wanted to put into effect quickly, Hornbeck decided to use an existing test developed in the early 1970s called the Maryland Functional Reading Test, which has a standard passing score of 80.

In 1979 state officials put together an alternate version of that test, but it was scrapped because some of its questions weren't effective. As a result, the same reading test, word for word, was given repeatedly until last fall. Williams, who was brought in to head the testing program in late 1980, said that in devising a new test he found that the old reading exam covered only 17 of the 74 reading objectives adopted by the state board. He said it omitted most of the difficult ones requiring students to draw inferences and demonstrate comprehension.

The new reading exam, he said, tests all the competencies adopted by the state board, and as a result is much harder than the old one. To maintain the same the level of difficulty for passing, which Hornbeck felt was necessary for fairness, the cut score was dropped from 80 percent correct on the old exam to 59 percent on the new one.

In math, Williams said, the exam was designed from the start to test all the adopted objectives. Last fall's test included 78 items that counted plus 21 others that were being tried out for future exams.

Williams said all the material is taught by the end of the eighth grade, most of it in fifth, sixth or seventh grades, and some as early as in grade three.

To help set the passing score and give it credibility, Williams said, groups around the state were consulted through a "rigorous democratic procedure." Last June 61 people around the state, including 35 citizens, 14 teachers, and 12 school administrators, took the test. On the average they recommended that students be required to answer 87.5 percent of the questions correctly. At about the same time test materials and sample questions were distributed to 4,700 high school seniors, their parents and teachers. About half of this group recommended an average passing score of 77 percent. The other half, who were told how students had done in a sample testing earlier, recommended an average of 74.6 percent correct. Hornbeck said he "pretty much split the difference" of all the advice he received.

"If one draws any conclusions from all this," Hornbeck said, "it may be not that the math standard is too high but that the reading standard is lower than it should be." But he said he has "absolutely no plans" to change either standard.

Around the country minimum competency tests have drawn some criticism because the average scores for blacks are lower than for whites--a disparity that appears on virtually all major school exams. In Florida a federal judge delayed enforcement of the exam requirement in 1979 for four years on the grounds that schools were still affected by previous segregation, even though he ruled that the test itself was not racially biased. Three weeks ago, the court said the Florida test could be used as a graduation requirement this spring, and an appeals court declined to interfere with that ruling.

Virginia also originally reported a high proportion of blacks failing its minimum competency tests--42 percent, compared to 11 percent of whites. But by the time the exam was required for graduation in 1981, the failure rate for blacks had dropped to less than one-half of one percent.

The Maryland State Education Department does not keep track of how blacks and whites fare on the tests. However, the four school systems with the lowest math scores, Baltimore, Dorchester, Somerset and Prince George's--all have black majorities.

"I think our Project Basic is one of the best equal opportunity programs around," Hornbeck said. "It insists that those who are not at first successful should be given instruction to ensure their success. These are skills that all the students are perfectly capable of learning. One of the greatest mistakes we can make about young people is to set our expectations too low."