Several Washington-area school systems, like a majority of school districts around the nation, have decided over the past few years to require more courses for graduation from high school.

But some education experts question whether increased requirements lead to greater student achievement, and also question the kinds of courses students are allowed to take to meet the requirements. Other authorities counter that increased requirements in basic subjects are at least a step in the right direction.

At issue are policies in some jurisdictions that allow students to comply with increased graduation requirements by taking beginning-level courses, not those that cover more advanced material.

For example, the District of Columbia next year will require three more courses for graduation. At the same time, school officials have added three new courses.

One of them, science and social issues, is designed to develop "the scientific literacy needed for everyday life." It allows students to meet the requirement for a second science course without taking the regular--much harder--courses in biology, chemistry or physics.

The D.C. schools also have added a new general language course that offers basic vocabulary in one of several foreign languages along with cultural information, but is not part of a regular sequence of language courses; and a course called topics in mathematics, which does not teach algebra but counts toward the math requirement.

"We want all our students to take more science, more math, and a foreign language," associate superintendent James T. Guines said. "But we had to be realistic about our test score performance. . . . We will try to increase the quality in the future, but right now we can't just be setting traps."

In Fairfax County there is life science, which covers material less advanced than that in the standard biology text. In Arlington County there are two general mathematics classes that receive high school credit, both designed to prepare students for Virginia's minimum competency test in math, which is set at an eighth-grade level.

And Prince George's County is adding a new introductory algebra course that will cover less of the subject than algebra I.

Across the nation, 53 percent of school districts have raised the number of required courses in English, math, science, social studies or foreign languages during the past three years, a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Education shows. Another 38 percent plan to require more courses by 1985, the survey found.

But the study, issued by the department's National Center for Education Statistics, found "no consistent relationship" between course requirements and student achievement in the districts surveyed.

"It was disappointing," said Douglas Wright, the researcher who directed the survey. "But we just couldn't find the relationship. Some districts have raised their requirements recently because their achievement was low, and maybe we couldn't see the results yet.

"But maybe the requirements themselves are elusive," he said.

"They're not hard science or math. Maybe you can't just put people in classes longer and expect any significant effect unless you do something about the level of education they're getting and the motivation and background they have."

Other research, based on a massive government-sponsored survey of high school seniors called "High School and Beyond," indicates that achievement test scores rise with more years of course work, but only within particular high school programs.

"Academic performance seems bound up with background and ability. That comes out again and again in the research," said Tommy Tomlinson, a senior associate at the National Institute of Education, another branch of the Education Department. "But within that context, if kids take more courses, they do learn more."

Tomlinson added, "Of course, the material can't be softened so much that it's a waste of time. But if there is serious content to the course that is being added, and it simply isn't redundant, then the logic is inescapable--the students will know more."

Clifford Adelman, another researcher for the National Institute of Education, said, "I would rather see students taking life science and science and social issues" than courses in subjects such as consumer education or preparation for marriage, as offered by some school systems.

"It may not be so much, but it's more than they've been getting before," Adelman said. "At least they will be learning something about the world."

Adelman is the author of a study for the National Commission on Excellence in Education detailing a major turn away from academic subjects in American high schools during the 1970s.

In late April, the commission, appointed by Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, denounced a "rising tide of mediocrity" in U.S. schools.

One of its chief recommendations was requiring students to take more courses to graduate from high school: at least four years of English, three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies, and a half-year course in computer science. Compared to current requirements, the most substantial increases would be in science and math.

Although none of the recent changes or proposals go this far, all are in the same direction.

For example, S. John Davis, Virginia superintendent of public instruction, is pressing for three more courses in science and math in the state-wide minimum requirements. Local districts would be allowed to require even more.

In addition, Davis is asking for more courses in an optional "advanced studies" program, primarily for college-bound students, that would be recognized on diplomas with a special seal. This would match the recommendations of the excellence commission, except in computer science.

In Maryland, state-wide graduation requirements already are relatively high--20 courses, including 11 in major academic areas. But state superintendent David W. Hornbeck has indicated that he may soon recommend requiring two more courses in science and math.

In recent months both Idaho and Washington have raised state-wide high school graduation requirements. New York is considering similar action.

All these moves are similar to the ones already made by Washington-area school systems. They increase the amount of class time in different subjects, but do not spell out clearly what students should learn or impose any tests to make sure they have learned it.

Around the nation the only state-wide or district-wide tests that students must pass to graduate are for "minimum competencies." Virtually all of them are set at a junior high school level for a senior high school diploma.

By contrast, in almost all other countries there are extensive exams for high school graduation, though except for Japan, the proportion of youngsters receiving diplomas is much less than the 75 percent who do in the United States.

"In this country we've decided all kinds of kids should go to high school, and for those who are not able to handle cognitive work very well we have less demanding courses," said Kenneth W. Muir, public information director for Montgomery County schools.

"That's just the reality of life. We're a democracy. . . . If we drew the line too high , there would be many more dropouts. I don't think that would raise the intellectual level of the community."

To try to ensure a uniform academic level in different classrooms that offer the same subject, the Montgomery County school board in 1980 adopted a policy for county-wide final exams. So far the tests have been given only in some English and math courses.

In English the tests have been for the standard courses, but about the bottom 15 percent of students don't take them, Montgomery curriculum director William Clark said, because they are enrolled in different classes. Under a recent change in the English curriculum, these students now take "skills" courses to meet their high school English requirements. Clark said they are studying "the basic skills they should have picked up before ninth grade but didn't."

To their supporters, extra course requirements have another virtue: They should help keep students in school during senior year.

Under present rules, many students around the country enter senior year needing only one or two courses for the diploma. "Most of our seniors come in the morning and leave before lunch," said Carl J. Hymes, principal of Roosevelt High School in Northwest Washington.

"There's no way to make them take a full program. A lot of them know they can fail a whole year and still make it up to graduate with their classmates. The way things are now there's a license to stay out of school."

Hymes said "it ought to be better next year," when the minimum number of year-long courses needed for a D.C. high school diploma goes up by three to 20 1/2.

At Roosevelt, Hymes said, the extra requirement can be met by filling up the classes of math, science, and foreign language, which previously were under enrolled.

But elsewhere, officials said, it may be difficult to raise requirements because of the loss of science and math teachers to higher paying jobs in industry.

Even if classes can be covered, said Douglas Lapp, science coordinator for the Fairfax County schools, "the quality of the people we get now is not as high as the teachers we were getting several years ago. . . . It's kind of silly to add requirements if you don't have people who can handle the material."