Virginia high school students' failure on the Standards of Learning exam in U.S. history probably could be reproduced in most schools across the country ["State Tests Fail 93% of Students in Virginia," front page, Aug. 14].

For instance, until recently one could graduate from a Montgomery County high school with only one ninth-grade course in U.S. history, covering only the period to the Civil War. A second course, from the Civil War period to the present, was optional and usually not taken by students who were allowed to choose between it and social science courses that offered subjects of more interest to the adolescent mind.

It also is probable that the messenger -- the test -- should not be blamed. The Post's story reports that parents and educators are concerned that the exams, especially the history exams, do not test analytical skills and require students to remember too much. Any facts and analysis of a large portion of U.S. history might be hard to come by under circumstances such as those described in Montgomery County.

As a teacher of history at the college level since the '50s, my impression is of a steady trend toward fact-free analysis in K through 12 education. Student appreciation of the need for and the process of factual proof of argument has declined over the years. Besides the facts of history, good history courses teach the need for analysis based on knowledge rather than inclination or fashion.

The subject of Nat Hentoff's July 31 op-ed column, the New Jersey legislation requiring recitation of a passage from the Declaration of Independence, may shed some light on Virginia's problem. In the 1920s, it was law in New Jersey, as in many other states, that textbooks could not contain criticism of the Founding Fathers or question the righteousness of any of the wars in which the United States had been engaged. History was to be used for lessons of patriotism and knowledge of our founding but not necessarily for an understanding of the workings of the democratic process or of our economic, social and governmental development. That idea seems to be reflected in the New Jersey law, in curriculum choices of required courses and in the test scores.

All of the above may give us some idea of why so many people now refuse the nation their vote. Fewer citizens know the facts of what the democratic process and voting have done in our history. They are consequently often less able to analyze the question "What good will my vote do?"

PAUL K. VAN DER SLICE

Bethesda