The Virginia Board of Education approved a statewide testing program yesterday that will require high school students in the class of 1981 to demonstrate basic reading and mathematics skills before they can graduate.

Eventually, students will have to show a "minimum competency" in four broad areas that will include history and other subjects. Individual school systems, however, will not be ready to test anything more than reading and math skills by 1981 because of time and money constraints, according to W. E. Campbell, state superintendent of public instruction.

The board did not decide on a deadline for when the tests will be required in the other subjects, and left a number of other specific provisions of the program undetermined, including what level of competency would be required and which commercial [WORD ILLEGIBLE] would be used.

Campbell had recommended the use of commercially prepared tests because they are readily available. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a new test specifically for state schools, he told the board, would be expensive and time consuming.

Although the board decided that students who do not pass the exam cannot graduate or receive a diploma, it did not spell out any recourse for the individual student. The board established a testing program to be run by local schools for students in the seventh through 10th grade to catch the problems to miss graduation. This testing will be mandatory for 10th graders next year so the school systems will have to work with the students before their 1981 graduation.

Virginia School Board President Henry W. Tulloch said that helping the student who fails the test is still one of the biggest problems to be worked out by the state.

A remedial program is being considered because it is so "very important to the individual," he said, while also noting that it is very expensive. Other possibilities include giving the test over again, he said, or awarding a certificate of attendance to the student instead of a diploma.

Campbell cautioned the board, however, that they would have to take care to recognize the special needs of handicapped and poor children.

The use of competency tests as a requirement for graduation has cuased a great deal of controversy, especially in Florida where school officials announced last week that 77 percent of the minority students taking an exam had failed.

However, Vincent Thomas, a member of the board from Norfolk, said the testing would have "positive ramifications."

"We are now requiring something specific of our teachers and our students," he said. And I think that's good."

Local education officials took a different view. According to John Bristol, superintendent of Alexandria schools, making graduation dependent on one test is "taking a highly narrow view" of the education process. Although competency tests can be a useful tool, Bristol said, other factors, such as teachers' evaluations, essay tests and completion of classes should also be considered.

William J. Burkholder, assistant school superintendent in Fairfax County, expressed "concern" about using state mandated tests, especially the commercially prepared tests as the sole criterion for student evaluation. "Our concept of minimum compensation is we need to test the (students') ability to use basic skills and knowledge," he said. He said the county objected to the commercial tests evaluate ability.

Campbell also suggested that before 1981 the board consider using some system to indicate on a high school diploma "what degree of competency the individual has been able to master." Although he gave no recommendations on what criterion to use for this evaluation, he suggested that perhaps the test score should be considered.

Campbell said this type of evaluation is needed because businessmen often ask for it when they are considering employing a former student. The businessmen complain the high school diploma tells them little about what the student can do, he said.

But Bristol said that all the information employers need to evaluate a prospective employe is already available. He said that the high school diploma, along with a transcript of the student's high school record giving his grades and test scores tells employers more than any one test score would.

According to Frances Quinto, a spokeswomen for the National Education Association, 36 states have established competency tests.

Quinto said NEA objects to the tests because they set up "so specific" a criterion for graduation that educators "lose sight of the purposes of education."

"We say we're committed to individualized education . . . and yet we give standardized tests," she said.Quinto said that because the test only measures "quantifying" aspects of the child's education it is "meaningless."

According to Thomas Fisher, director of student assessment, for Florida's education department, that state's experience was beneficial for the school education system and the students. He said that the schools had not set standards for years and we're not meeting students needs. But now those needs have been identified and can, through much hard work, be met, he said.

"We recognize the fact that there are a lot of kids who are deficient, but there are a lot of good things out there too," he said. "The system has got to respond."