The president of the Virginia Board of Education yesterday suggested changes in the state's achievement tests in history, following complaints from many parents and teachers that the exams cover too much material and put too much emphasis on memorization.

Board President Kirk T. Schroder asked a board advisory committee to explore several ideas, including putting some essay questions on the history exams and giving the tests more frequently to limit the amount of material covered on each one.

Virginia's two-year-old Standards of Learning exams test public school children in grades three, five, eight and in high school in basic subjects. The history exams have been the most controversial and have produced some of the highest failure rates.

In Fairfax County, for example, where about 40 out of 202 schools met the state's benchmarks for performance on tests given last spring, school officials estimate that another two dozen schools would have reached the state targets if not for their history scores.

Critics say that the multiple-choice exams do not adequately measure analytical skill and that they force students to recall information they may have studied years earlier.

Schroder asked the committee advising the board on the testing program to study whether essay questions should be included at the middle and high school level. To narrow the range of material being tested, he said, the committee should explore the idea of developing history tests that would be taken every year from third grade through eighth grade.

Schroder stopped short of endorsing any of those changes, and any recommendations from the advisory panel would require board approval before taking effect.

Local school officials yesterday reacted favorably to Schroder's announcement.

"I'm encouraged," said Prince William School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly. "This shows a willingness on the part of the Department of Education and Mr. Schroder to really take a serious look at some of the concerns that have been expressed by educators and parents."

Henrico County School Superintendent Mark Edwards, who co-chairs the advisory panel made up of educators and business and community leaders, said he agrees with Schroder's suggestions. "The recommendations are pragmatic and make good sense," Edwards said.

Schroder also suggested the panel consider more changes in social studies testing in high school. A new exam in world geography will be introduced next school year, but one of the world history tests will continue to include geography questions, a format that Schroder said should be reexamined.

And he asked the panel to make recommendations for improving the forms that parents receive on their child's test performance, as well as the forms that show how their child's school did in various academic and safety categories. Schroder did not make any specific suggestions for changing either of those forms.

Some local school officials have suggested that the annual reports on school performance, which were mailed out for the first time last spring, include demographic information--such as the percentage of students poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches--that may have a bearing on test results.

Schroder said some of the changes he is suggesting might mean spending more money on the testing program, adding, "I stand ready to ask the governor and legislators for any additional funding."