FOR MANY YEARS until 1969, Washington had a rigorous system for certifying new teachers in the public schools. It included the widely used National Teacher Examination, and the system also had its own local test. But in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was a teacher shortage, not enough applicants passed the tests to fill all the job openings. As a result, many were hired anyway, as temporary teachers - to the point where the "temporary" ranks made up nearly half of the city's total. In addition, the National Teacher Exam came under attack as being discriminatory against blacks because a substantially higher percentage of blacks than whites were failing it.

It's not all that surprising, therefore, that school board member Conrad P. Smith says that he's met many teachers "who haven't reached the level of literacy that we need." Nor is it unreasonable for board vice president Carol L. Schwartz to suggest, as she did last week to staff writer Lawrence Feinberg of this newspaper, that authorities "require our teachers to read and write and spell." As she noted, "If they feel threatened by that, it's too bad. I don't think we are wrong to demand some minimum competence."

Nor do we. The challenge, as explained in an article on the opposite page today, is to come up with an equitable evaluation system for applicants as well as current teachers. Obviously if a new test were devised for assessing teacher applicants and 95 per cent of them failed it, the process would be self-defeating. Yest mere reliance on college degrees as tickets to teaching jobs have proven terribly risky.

Today's surplus of teachers is reason enough for parents, administrators, school-board members - and current teachers and their union as well - to insist on tougher entrance standards. The board has asked school superintendent Vincent E. Reed to prepare a plan for a written entrance test. He should do so in consultation with the teachers.

Recertification and literacy measurements of current teachers admittedly are more sensitive matters. But they, too should become part of the continuing evaluation and staff-development programs. Here again, a practical solution requires serious participation by the union in reaching agreement on tests and remedial programs.

These are tall orders for the school system. But that is where the decisions had best be made - and promptly, for if they aren't there is sure to be interference by would-be "suprasuperintendents" on the city council. Already, council member William R. Spaulding is pushing an "accountability" bill that would interject council members as education overseers. We have suggested before that this legislation be scrapped. But the case for scrapping it would be seriously undercut if the elected school board and the teachers in the system prove themselves incapable of reforming their own standards in short order.