A former Prince William County special education teacher, who was not rehired because she failed a national teachers examination, has alleged in federal court that she is being discriminated against because of her own learning disability.

Sofia P. Pandazides, 24, of Triangle, claims that she cannot meet a state-required minimum score on the NTE, a national standardized test for teachers, because she understands written and spoken information more slowly than normal. Without passing the test, she cannot get a state teaching certificate and the Prince William public schools cannot legally offer her a permanent job.

Pandazides, who taught emotionally disturbed middle school students for the two school years that ended in June 1990, filed suit last month in U.S. District Court in Alexandria against the Prince William School Board, the Virginia superintendent of schools and Board of Education, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam. She is seeking reinstatement and unspecified punitive damages.

A hearing is scheduled Friday in Alexandria. A federal judge has already denied Pandazides's demand that the Prince William County schools rehire her pending the suit's outcome.

Under federal law, public officials must make hiring decisions with "reasonable compensation" for otherwise qualified people with disabilities.

The defendants in the case contend that Pandazides, a 1988 graduate of Longwood College in Farmville, Va., does not qualify as a handicapped person because she was not tested for learning disabilities until she repeatedly failed the "communication skills" section of the teachers exam, which tests reading comprehension and English usage and requires answers to questions about oral presentations.

"We don't believe these disabilities limited her life's activities," said the testing service's general counsel, Stanford von Mayerhauser.

However, Vera Williams, a specialist in learning disabilities who was Pandazides's adviser at Longwood, said she told Pandazides in 1984 that she might be learning disabled. "I'd tell Sofia something and she'd get it, but it would take a little while," Williams said.

At that time, Pandazides declined to be tested. "I wanted to prove to myself I could do it," she said in a telephone interview recently, adding that she made the dean's list her final semester. "I developed special techniques that other people didn't have to do."

Lawyers for the testing service contend that "reasonable accommodations" were made for Pandazides when she was allowed to take the test under special conditions.

In the 1989-90 school year, 164,000 people took the national exam, including 209 with learning disabilities, said Marlene Goodison, director of NTE programs.

Pandazides took and failed the exam eight times, including twice when she was given 50 percent more time and a written transcript of the oral portion of the test, according to her lawyer, Steven D. Stone, of Alexandria. Her highest score fell two points short of the required 649. Scores range from 600 to 695.

Pandazides's suit contends the special conditions didn't meet her needs. "It's only 15 minutes more each section . . . and you have only 45 seconds a question," she said.

"It's like saying I'm near sighted and you say, 'You can't use your glasses but we'll give you three hours,' " said Bill Butler, vice president of the National Network of Learning Disabled Adults. "A person who is disabled doesn't need an amplification of what a normal person has. They need specific aids."

Pandazides had asked to take the test without a time limit and to be allowed to ask follow-up questions to gauge whether she had properly understood the question.

Von Mayerhauser of the testing service called that request "the most extraordinary we've ever received." He argued, "To allow her to talk {to the questioner} would undo the very purpose of the test . . . to test whether she has communication skills that are considered necessary to a teacher."

Thomas A. Elliott, administrative director of Virginia's office of professional development and teacher certification, said, "It's like opening Pandora's box. If we get to exceptions, we shouldn't have a test at all, because any of us can come up with a reason why we should be an exception."

Stone contends the national exam doesn't demonstrate whether Pandazides is effective in the classroom. "There has got to be a better way to test her abilities," he said, adding the state should consider her two years of teaching experience.

Although Pandazides did poorly on her first-year evaluation, she received "effective" ratings in five out of six categories at the end of her second year, Stone said.

"She had {classroom} management problems," said School Board attorney Joseph Dyer. "There's a correlation between {the part of the test} she is having trouble with and the trouble she has been having in the classroom."

Woodbridge Middle School Principal Robert Stine stated in an affidavit filed last month, that he would not have rehired Pandazides even if she had a certificate. When contacted recently, he would not comment on the case.

This year, Pandazides is teaching at a private school in Arlington. Certification is not required for private school teachers. "I can think fast in front of the students," she said.