The state Board of Education today continued its drive to raise teacher standards in Virginia by setting the highest minimum test scores in the nation for new math and English teachers.

The board unanimously adopted the cutoff scores for 16 subject areas, setting all among the highest in the nation and several--including math and English--at the very top.

Critics worry that requiring higher test scores will screen out some qualified applicants, worsen the state's teacher shortage and prevent immigrants and African Americans from entering the profession.

But state education officials said that adopting more rigorous standards for teachers is the next step in improving public education.

"We're now ensuring that teachers are qualified to teach in their subject areas in the classroom," said board President Kirk T. Schroder. "If we're now setting new bars and challenges for our children, it seems reasonable to do so for our teachers."

Beginning in July 2000, all aspiring teachers in Virginia will have to take a new exam in their area of concentration--instead of the National Teachers Exam now given--to get full certification.

The new test is called Praxis II. Virginia already has among the highest passing scores in the nation for the Praxis I exam, a basic-skills test created by the Educational Testing Service, based in New Jersey, and generally given to college freshmen and sophomores planning to be teachers. In the 1997-98 school year, more than 5,000 students took that test in Virginia. Of those students, one-third failed for math, one-quarter failed for reading and 40 percent failed for writing.

The Praxis II passing scores will make it even harder to become a teacher in Virginia. There are now 84,000 teachers statewide, and those who have full certification--as opposed to provisional certifications that schools sometimes hand out to fill classrooms--don't need to take the Praxis II.

Both Maryland and the District require the Praxis II but have set minimum scores that are generally lower. In English Language, Literature and Composition, for example, Virginia's new minimum score is 172. Maryland's is 164; the District's is 142. In mathematics, Virginia's new minimum score is 147. Both Maryland's and the District's are 141.

Virginia board members said setting high scores in math and English was especially important because they are core subjects for all students.

But many critics worry that the push for higher standards will collide with the growing shortage of teachers, particularly in math and the sciences. If schools can't find certified teachers, they may have no choice but to hire ones on provisional certifications.

Mary Anne Lecos, director of teacher education at George Mason University's Graduate School of Education, warned that some good teaching candidates may not score well on tests. African Americans and immigrants historically score lower on standardized tests, meaning the high scores may make it harder to bring diversity to classrooms, she said.

"It doesn't seem good public policy," Lecos said. "I just think [the board members] have too much faith in tests as a way of improving teaching and improving learning."

Sally Todd, executive director of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said she has had conversations with a handful of teachers who have had difficulty passing certain sections of the Praxis I exam.

The teachers have commented that they think it is unfair for Virginia to set higher standards than neighboring states. Todd said she understands their frustration but believes that if students are being expected to meet higher standards, it makes sense to set higher standards for teachers, too.

"When we're setting high standards for our students, it's very difficult not to set reasonably high standards for the instructors who are going to be teaching them," she said.

And, she said, it remains to be seen whether the passing scores are too high.

"I think most educators are well prepared and well trained," she said. "I'd like to think we'll meet the challenge--just like I think our students will."

Staff writer Victoria Benning contributed to this report.