When Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb was searching for a Secretary of Education, the name John Thomas Casteen III was not at the top of his list. But at the last minute, Robb said he agreed to meet with the University of Virginia's admissions dean "almost as a courtesy" at the urging of a former university president.

By the end of the interview, the governor-elect was certain he had found his man. "It was so clear our sense of priorities and directions meshed completely," recalled Robb recently. "At that point, I knew . . . that is the man I wanted to be secretary."

Since then, the 40-year-old scholar with a background in Anglo-Saxon literature has become a key figure in shaping a program that has helped thrust Robb into the national debate over education standards. In the past two months the governor has called for tougher requirements for high school graduation, proposed a $166 million pay raise for the state's 62,000 public school teachers and advocated a pilot merit pay project for "master teachers."

"Robb and Casteen have put education on the front burner in Virginia," said Margaret Marston of Arlington, a member of the state board of education and the National Commission on Excellence in Education. "Times are different. Who would have thought that education would be the hottest political thing?"

With his horn-rimmed glasses and his soft-spoken monotone, Casteen is hardly the image of a hot political property. "John is a professorial type and he comes across as a professor in all that he does," said Barry Dorsey, assistant director of the state Council of Higher Education here. "He is also the hardest working secretary I have seen here in 10 years."

As one of six secretaries in Robb's cabinet, Casteen makes $61,360 a year and ranks above the constellation of boards and commissions that govern education in Virginia. In this decentralized system, Casteen's main role has been as catalyst and salesman, an idea man who is credited by competing factions of the state's education establishment with keeping an open door to all groups.

"He is for high standards and with him, it is more than just pap," said Robert Smith, dean of the college of education at Virginia Polytechnical Institute. "It is quite refreshing to see someone with bold ideas, who also has a good sense of what the traffic will bear."

Some of the reforms underway in Virginia pre-date Robb and Casteen. In elementary and secondary schools, the push toward improvement started with Superintendent S. John Davis and State Board of Education members who began the battle for higher teacher standards and increased requirements for high school diplomas.

Still, Davis and others say Casteen and Robb have provided critical support. "They have given us leadership," said Davis. "There's never any question about what direction they want to go."

Some critics say that despite the administration's emphasis on education, little was done last year to spare higher education from Robb's budget cuts. In fact, they note that the state's 36 two- and four-year colleges this year were asked to bear a disproportionate share of the cuts -- until the legislature came to their rescue with more money.

"If I had to level a criticism, it would be that there was a perceived inconsistency on the part of the administration," said former Democratic state legislator George Grayson, a college professor from Williamsburg and strong Casteen supporter, who is now trying to win his way back into the assembly. "I believe them when they say we should start preparing for the 21st Century. But if you are going to say that, then you should back it up with more than lip service. You should back it up with bucks."

Casteen insists the governor had made it known from the start that his first priority would be the public schools, in particular an all-out effort to raise Virginia teachers' salaries to the national average. "Like it or not, the governor made clear what his priorities were," he said. "He didn't say everybody would have to bleed the same amount."

There has also been consternation over administration efforts to cut back on remedial education offered at four-year colleges. In a series of speeches in the spring of 1982, Robb labeled remedial higher education a "contradiction in terms" and urged most of the state's four-year colleges to start phasing it out. At the same time, he called on high schools to do the job right in the first place.

For teachers in Virginia's smaller, less prestigious colleges, that mandate has been difficult, considering the number of freshmen who arrive at their doors unable to do college work. "From the standpoint of people in the institutions, that raised alot of alarms and frightened people," said one remedial expert. "There's a lot of concern for these students and a fear that in pushing for quality, you may reduce access."

Casteen, who once said, "It's astounding the number of college applicants who can't write a literate essay," has stuck to his guns on the issue. "The question is whether remedial education during the school year works," said Casteen, who has been an advocate of special summer programs for disadvantaged college freshmen. "It's very expensive and difficult to show the positive effects in Virginia."

He also takes issue with those who argue that the policy of phasing out remedial classes is at odds with the goal of increasing black enrollment at traditionally white colleges. "There are some people who think that the only way to demonstrate a commitment to increased minority enrollment is to offer remedial courses," he said. "That's baloney. There's a better way . . . and that's with better high schools."

At U-Va., where Casteen earned his graduate, MA and Ph.D. degrees, and at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught for five years, colleagues describe him as a scholar with a bright future and a rare talent for administration.

He has kept up the combination even as Education Secretary and teaches English courses at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, in part, hesaid, to keep in touch with students but also to bone up on 19th Century novelists for reading he's been doing on the Industrial Revolution.

"I am not much of a specialist because I have had the luxury of not having to be," said Casteen, who besides his scholarship in English literature and linguistics, has published short stories, co-authored a book on the papers of Thomas Jefferson and is now planning an update of a monograph on Ben Jonson, the 17th Century playwright.

Son and grandson of Portsmouth shipyard workers and the product of public schools (his school-age son from his first marriage goes to public school in Charlottesville), he credits his own high school prh "rejecting the notion that to be from the shipyard meant vocational training. He expected more and he delivered."

High expectations are at the bottom of Casteen's fasuch proposals as an "advanced diploma" for college-bound students, a concept that has earned him from some quarters a reputation for elitisutation also fueled by his tendency, as one colleague put it, to "flash his Phi Beta Kappa key."

Casteen dismisses the elitist charge as irrelevant. "It is an easy charge to makconsidering the college I went to and the career that I've had," he said recently. "Elitism in that sense is a begged term in Cartesian logi When Casteen returned to U-Va. in 1975 to run the admissions office, the university was under pressure to diversify its student body and recruit more women and blacks. is credited with refining a system that he says was able to predict a student's performance, based on a number of factors, of which college board test scores was only one.

As t of those efforts U-Va. came closer than most other Virginia colleges in meeting its minority recruitment goal set under a decade-old lawsuit. It is an achievement which C, the pivotal figure in the state's latest negotiated plan for college integration, hopes to duplicate throughout the state.

As a university admissions dean Casteen gained first-hand knowledge of the workings -- and filings -- of American education, Virginia's in particular. He could see which students had been encouraged to aim high and which of those had fallen by the wayside, and atoint. It was from this experience, he said, that he realized the importance of the middle grades, a stage wherany students -- often unwittingly -- make choices that determine the rest of their lives.

To help parents and students make those choices, has come up with an idea adopted from France and inspired in part by the experience of his Swedish-born wife.tribute, literally from the day of birth, a series of pamphlets outlining the options available to children in Virginia. Casteen says that the concept is now being "plagi by other states.

In Virginia, experts say a final grade on the Robb administration's performance is going to have to wait. "These thingsappen over night," said Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) and one of the legislature's leading education advoca"Philosophically, they're on a sound basis, but on the results, ask me five to 10 years from now."