Educators should try harder to discount the effects of social disadvantage on academic competence, and they should begin by re-examining the worthiness of existing standard achievements tests, Joseph A. Califano Jr., Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, said yesterday.

The purpose of such an undertaking, Califano said, should not be to force unqualified students upon unwilling universities, but to recognize that cultural bias often is built into standardized tests.

While firmly opposing a program of national standards of achievement, Califanio said federal guidane can help educators develop tests "whose content does not place an excessive premium on cultural background."

In a speech to a College Entrance Examination Board conference, held in San Francisco, Califano announced that HEW will take several major steps to help the states improve their testing systems. They include:

A National Academy of Sciences study to evaluate not only the technical properties of tests, but the ways they are being used by schools.

The creation within HEW's Office of Education a new project on fundamental skills. It will consolidate 13 existing programs which together spend $3 1/2 billion annually. One of the goals of the project will be to improve targeting of HEW money for basic skills.

An arrangement with the NAS to establish a new committee on testing and basic skills, which will evaluate the results of basic competency testing.

Sponsorship of a National Institute of Education study to determine why students fail to perform well on tests.

The HEW Secretary warned that under-representation of minorities in graduate and professional schools was becoming a national problem.

Without mentioning the controversial Allan Bakke reverse discrimination case under study by the U.S. Supreme Court, Califano noted that in 1950, 10 per cent of the total U.S. population was black, while 2.2 per cent of all physicians were black. Twenty years later, 11.1 per cent of the population was black, while the percentage of black physicians remined unchanged.

"Obviously, without special efforts to recruit and include more minority students, this glaring under-representation in the professions and doctorial ranks will only continue," he said.

Educators should recognize that the admissions process has never been totally objective, Califano said, in remarks that echoed the Carter administration's amicus curiae brief in the Bakke case. Historically, he said, universities have looked to factors beyond test scores, including georgraphical mix, relationship to alumnus or alumna, extra-curricular activities and personal interests.

"We must broaden the range of talents measured in admission test. We must find ways to discover vital personal qualities - motivation, integrity, idealism - that bear upon aptitude an achievement," Califano said.

"Great reserves of human talent have been locked up by our national legacy of slavery and discrimination. Our misson if to ensure that this potential can be released . . .," he added.