The librarian of Congress, the U.S. education secretary and a television anchorwoman regaled a group of area high school student leaders yesterday about the joys of reading, but afterward many of the students said they and their classmates seldom read much except their homework.

"The kids don't read on their own. They don't have the time," said Siu Cheung of Crossland Senior High School in Prince George's County. "I have to do my homework, and I have to do my job.

"I'd like to see how many adults have time to read for pleasure," she added.

"I'm active in student government, and I have a job as a cashier," said Kecia Posey of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. "I have to pay for gas and insurance {for a car} and clothes and movies. It's hard to find time to read."

About 200 student government leaders from 68 Washington area high schools attended yesterday's symposium at the Library of Congress, sponsored by the library and the U.S. Education Department. Its theme was "leaders are readers," though in conversations afterward many of the leaders said they, like their fellow students, read little on their own.

Assistant Education Secretary Chester A. Finn, citing a nationwide poll conducted for his new book, "What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?" said only one out of five 11th graders reads something for pleasure every day, and 55 percent report reading for pleasure less than once a week.

"They don't read unless they are forced to," Finn said in a speech to the group. "I'm not surprised at all about that. Look at adults . . . . It's not a satisfactory situation."

Education Secretary William J. Bennett said, "One of the great pleasures of life is . . . staying up all night with a book," which Bennett said he once did with "Dracula."

As director of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1984, Bennett conducted a poll of about 300 teachers, scholars and other "literate Americans" on works that all students should read before graduating from high school. He said there was wide consensus about the top five: the Bible; Shake peare; the basic documents of American history, such as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," and Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey."

When one student said "Huckleberry Finn" had been banned from some school libraries, Bennett promised, "I'll slip you a copy."

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, told the students that books "are the places where you can discover the values that are greater than you . . . . They help you understand what other people think."

Renee Poussaint, a news anchorwoman for WJLA-TV (Channel 7) who once taught freshman English, said she works for "the enemy, television . . . . It stays in my mind that many of the students who are watching me should be reading. I want to tell them to turn the TV off, but I don't because it would upset my boss."

Later, Lisa Taschenberger of Bowie Senior High School said she agreed with the arguments for reading more, but "it's easier to look at TV and the movies. It's easier seeing a movie than reading the book, and a lot of people do that."