RICHMOND, JUNE 27 -- Nearly two-thirds of Virginia's sixth-graders passed the state's new "Literacy Passport Test" this spring, the state Department of Education announced today, but in Northern Virginia, as elsewhere, there was wide disparity in student performance.

Locally, pass rates ranged from nearly 81 percent for Fairfax County sixth-graders to 34 percent in Manassas Park. Alexandria, which has the highest per-pupil spending in the state -- about $7,700 -- had a pass rate of 52 percent (see chart for local breakdown). The statewide pass rate was 65.1 percent.

Under a state law adopted three years ago, all students entering ninth grade as of 1992 must have passed the Literacy Passport Test, which measures reading, writing and mathematics at the sixth-grade level. Students who did not pass one or more sections of the test this year still have two more years to do so. If they do not, they will not be allowed to continue into ninth grade.

Elaine P. Grainger, supervisor of the passport program, said at a news conference here that state education officials are "not alarmed when children do not pass on their first attempt." Grainger said large numbers of children were within a few points of passing.

The Literacy Passport Test, which was administered to nearly 72,000 sixth-graders this spring at a cost of $400,000, replaces the minimum competency test that Virginia students had to pass to obtain a high school diploma. Both tests grew out of state efforts to ensure literacy among high school graduates.

Standardized test scores for first-, fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders -- also released here today -- remained somewhat above national norms and improved only slightly over last year's results. A stubborn gap of 20 to 30 points persists between the scores of black and white students, according to the test data.

Deputy State School Superintendent Vincent C. Cibbarelli said he was "pleased" with the students' performance but that the relatively poor showing of black students on both tests is cause for concern.

On the literacy passport, the pass rate for black students was 45.6 percent, compared with 71.1 percent for white students. Asian students did the best, with a pass rate of 78.8 percent. Overall, 71 percent of girls passed; 59.5 percent of boys did.

Grainger said the strongest correlation between test scores and other factors was linked to poverty, with those school divisions with a large number of children on subsidized lunch programs having the least number of children passing the literacy test.

"The results will give us data as to the skills {those} children need to bring their scores up," Cibbarelli said.

Officials found little correlation between the pass rate and a district's per-pupil spending, Grainger said.

Alexandria School Superintendent Paul W. Masem said that although he is not satisfied with how his students performed, he nonetheless sees positive signs in the test results.

Pass rates among the city's non-handicapped black and Hispanic students improved substantially over their performance on a pilot literacy test given last year, he said.

Masem also pointed to the annual standardized tests, which show Alexandria first-graders scoring below national norms for verbal and quantitative skills. "Our test scores certainly look better than what you would anticipate looking at the incoming students," he said. "We're not satisfied. I don't want you to read this that way. But I think we're having an impact."

Alexandria City Council member Redella S. Pepper said she wasn't heartened by Masem's words.

"We've got to have a revolution in our school system to bring those scores up," Pepper said. "I'm just sick to hear those figures. We've made such an effort already, and to do that poorly, well, it's just shameful."

Masem said school officials in his district of 9,200 students -- about 32 percent of whom receive free or reduced lunches and two-thirds of whom are minority -- is trying to intervene early by expanding Head Start programs and full-day kindergartens and by hiring full-time counselors and social workers in each school.

His goal, he said, is to have all of his students pass the Literacy Passport Test by eighth grade. "It's our view that we've got two more shots and we know who these kids are," Masem said.

In Manassas Park, which had the lowest pass rate in Northern Virginia and one of the lowest in the state, Superintendent James W. Moyers said his district, which had been concentrating on improving its secondary test scores, now must focus on the elementary grades as well.

The scores "don't make me jump for joy, that's for sure," Moyers said. "We'll just look at it as a challenge. We know what has to be done. Now we have to figure out a way to do it."

The three-part literacy test covers reading comprehension, writing, computation, telling time, weight and measurement, among other things. Each year, the writing sample will present students with a different topic. This year's assignment was to "write about something you wish you had."

Each writing sample is read by at least two specially trained teachers, Grainger said.

Grainger said she expects almost all children to earn the literacy passport -- an actual document to be awarded to those who pass the test -- by ninth grade.