ANNAPOLIS, DEC. 9 -- Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer's 1988 legislative agenda will be more modest than what he proposed during his first year, but his plans outlined today for tackling some of the most controversial issues are still too sketchy for legislators to judge.

A restructuring of the state's higher education system, an ambitious prison program and a planned residential high school for mathematics and science students topped the list of Schaefer initiatives, all of which are already familiar to legislative leaders.

The governor also will ask for a controversial change in the selection of Circuit Court judges, making them appointed rather than elected.

Schaefer's aides outlined areas where the governor wants to do something -- to improve the Port of Baltimore, for instance, or crack down on bad doctors -- but they said the governor has not yet decided what to do.

For those reasons, legislators were neither thrilled nor disquieted by the governor's package. "It's hard to get upset when you're talking generalities," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's).

Miller said more will be known about the governor's priorities when he releases his proposed budget in January. "That's where most of the controversy surrounding the 1988 session will be, if there is controversy."

"This is a much more modest agenda," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Charles J. (Buzz) Ryan (D-Prince George's). Last year, Schaefer sought and received approval for two sports stadiums in Baltimore, an increase in the gasoline tax, tort reform, changes in workers' compensation laws and a complicated reorganization of state government.

"It was heavy duty," said Ryan.

But it may be too soon to tell just how divisive Schaefer's new agenda will prove. The governor's legislative chief, Alan Rifkin, said an overhaul of the state's college system will be the year's "paramount" issue, but details of the proposed reorganization remain undecided.

The governor has decided he wants to consolidate all 13 of the state's four-year public colleges, now governed by four separate boards, under a single Board of Regents, his aides said. He also has decided to strengthen the State Board for Higher Education, which coordinates all facets of higher education -- public and private colleges, community colleges, and for-profit trade schools.

But, aides said, Schaefer has not yet settled the key question of how to divide powers between this statewide board and the new Board of Regents. Those powers would include approving and eliminating academic programs, hiring presidents and setting school budgets. Nor has the governor decided how much money to give to the schools, which he has acknowledged are badly underfunded.

Rifkin said a plan to revitalize Baltimore's port would be a top priority for Schaefer, but the governor has not decided how to try to make the port, which has been losing business to other East Coast ports, more competitive.

Some legislators already are questioning Schaefer's continued push for a residential mathematics and science high school, which was a campaign promise. Schaefer contends that the school, which would eventually serve 600 students and cost about $8 million, is needed to encourage more students to enter those fields and would serve as a magnet for economic development.

But critics say it would duplicate new specialized programs in local school systems and divert money that could be better spent to improve math and science education statewide.

There was also skepticism about Schaefer's request for up to $20 million to woo businesses to Maryland and help keep ones already here. Still, legislative leaders have said they are likely to grant the request -- if Schaefer agrees to ask the legislature's approval before spending the money.

Schaefer's aides said he would revive his proposal to limit the liability of corporate directors and also extend the protection to company officers. Defeat of a similar measure last year was one of Schaefer's biggest legislative disappointments.

In the social services area, Schaefer wants to increase the availability of day care, and establish a pilot program for state Department of Environment employees. He also will seek to streamline the regulatory process for day care center operators and provide state loans for businesses and others that want to offer day care.

One of the toughest political chores on the agenda will be to remove circuit judges from having to run for election. The change has been proposed in the past and defeated by a coalition of black, Republican and rural legislators who feel it is an attempt to curb their political powers.

Currently, circuit judges are appointed by the governor from lists supplied by judicial nominating committees, and the judges must then run in the next general election. Schaefer argues that some lawyers turn down the chance to become judges because they don't want to face an election.

On other issues, Schaefer will propose keeping the state-run vehicle emissions program, but require testing every two years instead of annually, and eliminating any exemptions from the tests. He also will call for more regular safety inspections of heavy trucks.