Students at Virginia's predominantly black colleges have a much higher failure rate on a teacher licensing examination that the state has adopted than those at predominantly white schools, according to test results released by the State Department of Education.

More than 70 percent of the students tested at three black colleges -- Norfolk State, Virginia Union and St. Paul's -- scored below the passing mark set by the state on the communications part of exam. At the state's two other predominantly black colleges -- Hampton Institute and Virginia State -- the failure rate on the test was slightly below 50 percent, the department reported.

Overall, 60.6 percent of students tested at the five black colleges failed the communications test compared to 7.7 percent of those at the state's 34 other schools. A total of 3,592 students from Virginia colleges took the exam, including 274 from the black colleges.

"I think there is a danger that there won't be too many new black teachers unless something dramatic occurs," said Elaine P. Witty, dean of the school of education at Norfolk State. "But we're going to do all we can to get our students to pass the test in as much as that is the law. . . . I think the results will look much better."

Lawrence H. Cross, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who headed a research project to establish the passing scores, said the high failure rates at Virginia's black colleges are similar to those at predominantly black schools in states that have begun to require new teachers to pass licensing exams. In states that keep data by race, the failure rate for blacks taking the tests has been high.

"I think these scores reflect a lot more on what happens to kids during their 12 years of public education than they do on their two years of teacher training . . . ," said Cross, an education professor. "What we're probably seeing is the 100 years of the 'separate but equal' system coming home to roost."

Of all Virginia college students who submitted test scores to the state, about 12 percent fell below the passing score in communications, an exam that covers reading, writing and listening; 6.5 percent failed in general knowledge, which includes humanities, science and social studies; and 5 percent failed the "professional knowledge" or teaching techniques part of the exam.

Among the predominantly white colleges where at least 10 students took the test, the failure rate in communications ranged from about 20 percent at Marymount in Arlington and Bluefield in western Virginia to zero at three schools: William and Mary, Randolph-Macon and Randolph-Macon Women's College.

Under rules adopted in September by the Virginia State Board of Education, new teachers will be required to pass all three parts of the day-long exam starting July 1, 1986. They also will have to pass a test in the specialty they wish to teach. Since 1980 applicants for teaching certificates in Virginia have been required to take the tests, but not to get a specific passing score.

The test, called the National Teachers Examination (NTE), is prepared by Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. The new school-by-school report is based on test scores submitted for the past two years.

Cross said that the problems of predominantly black colleges in Virginia "are compounded by the white colleges skimming off the best black students" to meet quotas under a court-ordered desegregation plan.

"There's even a bounty of $1,000 scholarships to recruit black students to the predominantly white schools," Cross said. "These colleges are getting vastly different populations of students."

He said he expected that the scores might improve somewhat after students realize they have to pass exams to get a teaching job.

James T. Patton, director of teacher education and certification for the Virginia Education Department, said the department has proposed spending $1.2 million in the next two years to upgrade teacher training at the two state-supported black colleges, Norfolk State and Virginia State in Petersburg. He said the two schools already are gearing their curriculums more closely to the exams and are teaching test-taking skills.

"These institutions are not just going to sit back," Patton said. "Their kids can do it."

Patton said he hoped the situation might be similar to what happened with Virginia's minimum competency tests for high school graduation. When those tests were first given to sophomores, about 42 percent of blacks failed, but by their senior year the failure rate was less than one-half of 1 percent.

Since 1977, about 20 states have started using exams to license new teachers as part of a nationwide movement to improve teacher quality. Elsewhere, including the District and Maryland, teachers are licensed solely on the basis of taking certain courses at colleges with approved teacher training programs. The Maryland State Board of Education is considering use of the licensing exams, which are comparable to those in many other fields, such as medicine, law and accounting.

Despite allegations that the teacher tests are biased, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of properly validated exams in 1978.

To pass the teacher exam in Virginia, applicants must score above the bottom 22 percent of all students taking the communications test nationwide, above the bottom 14 percent in general knowledge and above the bottom 10 percent in teaching techniques and philosophy.

"Actually, it's not that hard to pass," said Larry Bowen, dean of professional studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, where the failure rate on the three parts of the test ranged from 1.5 to 6 percent. "The test is not sufficient to guarantee that someone will be a good teacher, but anyone who can't pass at those levels has some real weaknesses."

Bowen said that starting next year, George Mason will require all students to pass the general knowledge and communications tests before they begin the teacher education program as juniors.