A NEW SYSTEM of evaluating beginning teachers, ordered by the Virginia education department, has begun in the state's public schools. Three-member teams of retired teachers and principals observed and rated 668 beginning teachers across the state last fall. The disturbing results, released Tuesday, show why the new system is needed. Forty-five percent of those new teachers did not satisfy requirements in an average of six to seven of the 14 skills that were judged.

Was the new teachers' ability to question effective? Did they offer clear interpretations of their subject matter? Were they aware that some students are faster learners than others and did they correct for those differences? These were some of the abilities the observers looked for, and too often, the answer to the questions was "No."

Under this system, new teachers are given a two- year conditional teaching certificate. Those with poor evaluations have two more chances to improve their rating. They must be satisfactory in at least 10 of the categories considered or they will not receive a regular teaching certificate, says William Helton, a state education department official.

Written tests, such as the National Teacher's Exam, assess a beginning instructor's knowledge and basic skills. But the new Virginia system assesses how well he or she teaches, and that is vital. Three different observers studied the new teachers in their classes during a 10-day period. Those new teachers who failed to meet specific requirements were sent to workshops at local colleges and universities. The teachers get another crack at satfyw round of observations this semester, but there are important lessons in these initial results.

The fact that so many of the teachers did poorly makes it obvious that tougher standards are necessary for hiring in the first place. Personnel offices should be inspected to see what is wrong. There should also be a reconsideration of the "sink or swim" practice of simply leaving fledgling educators in their classrooms, bereft of tutelage and guidance. One need only see how difficult it is for some new instructors to maintain order in their classrooms to understand the value of assistance from a teacher with experience. The fact that many of the observers were retired teachers is important. Some method of pairing first-year instructors with seasoned veterans would be a helpful way to begin teaching careers. It could be a boon to both the new teachers and their students.