Spanish-speaking children enrolled in the federal government's ambitious bilingual education program are not learning to speak and read English as quickly as comparable students not in the program.

That is one of the prime findings of the first comprehensive efforts to gauge the effectiveness of the bilingual education effort in which 260,000 school children receive basic instruction in their native language while they are being taught English.

In a study for the U. S. Office of Education, the California-based American Institutes for Research also found that less than one-third of the Hispanic American children enrolled in 38 bilingual programs were of limited English speaking ability.

Participation in bilingual programs, the study also found, did not significantly affect attitudes toward school or school-related activities.

The study comes at a time of mounting debate and controversy in government and education over the extent to which non-English speaking children should be taught in their native languages.

In the last nine years, the government has spent almost $500 million for hundreds of bilingual projects in languages ranging from Navaho to Greek to Tagalog and Russian.

Currently, $115 million is being spent on bilingual education and Presisent Carter has requested $135 million for next year.

Yet, the study noted, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of the bilingual programs, most of which enroll Spanish-speaking students.

In general, the theory behind the bilingual programs has been that students would receive instruction in their native languages in most subjects while gradually acquiring competence in English.

In recent years, however, advocates of bilingual education have argued that its function should be the maintenance and preservation of the native language and culture.

The study released yesterday suggested that bilingual programs are heading in the direction of the native language maintenance.

The original intent of the bilingual education legislation was to focus on students of limited English-speaking ability, the study noted. But it said that in 85 per cent of the projects studied, children continued to receive instruction in their native language even after they had learned enough English to survive in an all-English-speaking class.

In the area of mathematics computation, the study said, children in bilingual programs appeared to have progressed slightly faster than comparable students who were not in bilingual programs.

The report was based on tests given in the fall of 1975 and the spring of 1976 to 7,700 students in grades two through six in more than 300 schools.

The Center for Applied Liguistics - an Arlington-based organization that supports bilingual education - immediately criticized the tests as invalid indicators of educational progress.

Dr. Tracy, speaking for the center, argued that there is a wide variance in the types of bilingual programs offered and that generalizations are inappropriate.