WHEN THE BELL rang for the history class at the District's Spingarn High School, the teacher was in the hallway talking over the ups and downs of love as seen on an afternoon soap opera. Tenth-graders rushed in and out past her. Entering the room five minutes late, she asked for homework assignments. Student were still running about. Some pulled out white loose-leaf sheets and put them on her desk while others made excuses. In the chaos, one student asked what "civil rights" meant. The teacher, giggling, said, "Girl, you don't know what civil rights are . . . " Then she wrote on the blackboard: "Civille Right."

This is no misprint. The teacher spelled it that way, and it stayed on the board, misspelled. Some bad teachers can be found acrosss the city and across the nation, too.

Consider this: in 1978, when 535 first-year teachers in Dallas were given a 10th-grade test, half failed. W. Timothy Weaver of Boston University reports that college students who graduated in 1976 with plans to become teachers were second from last in reading and math scores when compared with students preparing for jobs in 15 other fields, and third from last in vocabulary. National teacher examination scores have dropped "significantly" in the past five years, he says.

In the District, public school teachers have been hired for years just on the basis of their college records and interviews. Most are graduates of D.C. Teachers College, which in 1977 permitted two students to graduate even though they had failed basic math courses. One of the graduates could not add fractions, such as 3/4 plus 1/3. Faculty members said incompetent students had been slipping through D.C. Teachers, and going on to teach in the city's public schools, for 10 years.

Something must be done now before more children are made mental cripples. School Superintendent Vincent Reed is considering a requirement to have new teachers pass a test of academic skills. Though such a plan was first called for in 1977, he has not yet decided to adopt it. He should. The time to put it into effect is in 1980, when the system hopes to begin citywide testing of students before promotions from grades 3, 6 and 9.

It is no less important to begin testing senior teachers. The tensure system weds the public schools to most of its current teachers, who entered the system when standards were low. Tenured teachers who did poorly on a test could not be fired. But the test might push them to meet higher standards. A Teacher Appraisal Policy, involving chiefly conferences between teachers and principals, was recently initiated. But it does not measure teachers against standards of excellence; it merely compares them with each other. Testing, of teachers as well as students, and of old teachers as well as new ones, is one way for the school system to get to the heart of its academic woes.