AS HARD-PRESSED governments and their sponsors, the taxpayers, seek ways to stretch budget dollars, they are taking closer looks at the talent they buy -- including prospective teachers. A growing number of states and localities are requiring applicants for teaching jobs to pass competency tests. Locally, Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties already test their teacher-candidates, and they are now considering expanding these efforts. In addition, Arlington County and Alexandria use a test that is now required of all teacher-candidates in Virginia. Does this really help?

None of these tests guarantees really good, inspiring classroom leaders. But when used as filters and coupled with necessarily subjective judgments, the tests can help tell whether teacher-candidates know the essential subject matter. For example, Montgomery tests would-be English teachers on their spelling and grammar, and in the future will also be testing their skill at writing. Prince George's has instituted tests in various subjects, including math; and Fairfax, which began with a writing test, is developing tests in other skills.

The District, too, is considering instituting some sort of testing for applicants -- though right now, in a period of wholesale layoffs, newly hired teachers aren't the problem. What anguished parents and administrators long for at this point are programs that might improve the chances of knowing how good working teachers are, so that the best among them could be kept when cuts have to be made. But if you have polled any parents, you know that opinions on who is a "good" teacher and who is not may vary from family to family.

As a result, cuts are tied to seniority -- length of service to the city's schools -- which is not necessarily related to teachers' skills or popularity. That is why some school communities with high percentages of newer but well-liked teachers have been dealt the worst blows in the citywide cut. Yet tests alone do not accurately reflect a teacher's affection for children, general enthusiasm or other attributes that are very important in the elementary school years. For the future, a combination of steps are in order: 1) extensive testing of prospective new teachers, 2) improved training of those in the system, 3) bonuses for teachers considered by their superiors to have performed well and 4) high standards for the hiring and retention of administrators who -- more than anyone or any policy from a central administration -- are responsible for setting the tone in the schools they oversee.