Despite a promise of tougher standards, just 87 seniors throughout Virginia were denied high school diplomas last spring for failing the minimum competency test required for the first time for graduation. The pass rate was 99.86 percent of the 62,236 seniors who had completed all of their courses.

In Maryland, a similar test requirement goes into effect next June. As of last spring, 97.5 percent of the 61,000-member class of 1982 already had passed the examination, which students have been able to take twice a year since they were freshmen.

Since the mid-1970s, minimum competency tests -- usually in reading and math -- have been enforced as a graduation requirement in districts in 17 states. In every place where they have been used, the number of diplomas actually withheld for failing them has been about 1 percent or less, according to the Education Commission of the States.

So far, school boards or legislatures in 38 states, reacting to complaints about "worthless" diplomas and poor student skills, have adopted minimum competency standards in addition to course requirements for high school graduation. The District of Columbia plans to use its own version in 1984.

But what the movement has accomplished is uncertain because the standards themselves have been low, usually covering material that most students learn by ninth grade.

"Either the standard for the tests is so easy that it isn't very meaningful," said Harvard education professor Stephen K. Bailey, "or it could be hard and that's politically unacceptable" because large numbers of students would fail.

But supporters of the competency tests see them as part of a "consumer movement" that will raise standards gradually. They say it already has increased efforts to make sure that those at the bottom master basic skills.

"This is a minimum competency test, not a test of what most students learn in high school," said Henry Tulloch, a member of the Virginia State Board of Education. "It's a floor. That's all it is. But if students can't do these things when they get out into the world, they're going to have problems."

"It's put pressure on the educators," Tulloch added, "to avoid the social promotions and just pushing kids through."

In Virginia, as in most places that have the tests, the passing score on the current competency test is pegged at about an eighth-grade level. There is no time limit for answering its 159 multiple-choice questions-- 60 in reading and 99 in mathematics -- although most students finish in about two hours.

Some of the questions test basic academic skills that schools traditionally have taught, such as adding fractions, figuring percentages, finding the main idea in a story, or using a dictionary. Others put school skills to practical use in "real world" situations, such as making change, using a telephone book, and calculating what workers take home after taxes have been deducted from their paychecks.

Students first take the Virginia competency test as sophomores. Those who fail to score 70 on either reading or mathematics take that part again, once as juniors and three times, if necessary, in their senior year -- in October, March, and May. Each time, the skills tested and level of difficulty are the same, but Virginia's department of education has come up with new questions for each new test.

When the test first was given in the fall of 1978, some 12,399 Virginia students, or 17.8 percent of the sophomore class, failed the test. Almost 42 percent of black students failed, compared to 11 percent of whites, a disparity that drew charges from some black groups that either the test questions or the schools were biased.

The criticism subsided, however, as test results improved.

Students who failed were given remedial work in special classes where their numbers were substantial, such as in Alexandria, and sometimes with individual tutoring where the numbers were small, as in most Fairfax County schools. Usually, the work was tied closely to the test questions that students missed, with the state providing reports on individual weaknesses, plus sample lessons and practice questions to deal with them.

The results were dramatic, with the failure rate for graduating seniors going down last spring to0.46 percent for blacks and 0.05 percent for whites. Some who failed the competency tests dropped out of school, although the state has no specific data on them. But it seems unlikely that the tests themselves caused many students to quit, since the overall dropout rate from Virginia high schools has declined for the past two years.

Meanwhile, Gerald Bracey, director for testing for the Virginia Education Department, said that many school systems started to emphasize the specific skills included in the test in their junior high and early senior high classes, particularly those in the lower tracks. As a result, the pass rate for sophomores on the competency test rose to 94.5 percent last spring, with 96.9 percent of whites passing on their first try and87.1 percent of blacks.

"I think the test has accomplished something; the students can learn those skills," said Virginia state school superintendent S. John Davis. "Now I think we should begin the testing earlier in a youngster's career, to make sure skills are really taught and learned as they go along."

Jack Gravely, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, which criticized the test three years ago, said the issue has been "put on the back-burner."

"We just don't hear very much about it anymore," he said.

But Del. George W. Grayson (D-Williamsburg), who cosponsored the test requirement in the state legislature, said that the results show the test is "ridiculously easy." Said Grayson: "The goal isn't to have more students fail. But certainly we need a much more rigorous exam to give people any confidence that the high school diploma isn't just a suspect scrap of paper."

While students who pass the test on their first try sometimes make fun of it as too easy, those who fail and then succeed appear to respect it.

"It's fair, because some people here don't know how to read and figure," said Patrick Owens, a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "I was at that stage myself, and I think passing the test proved a lot of things for me."

Many black teachers seem to have become ardent supporters of competency testing.

"I think it's a fantastic idea," said Deborah Franklin, chairman of the English department at Fairmont Heights Senior High in Prince George's County. "All the way through life there are competency standards everywhere you go. Our kids have to learn to pass them."

Franklin acknowledged the point of some critics that preparing for the test reduces the time available for literature and composition. But she said: "The comprehension level of many of the kids is so low that you can't expose them to literature as we know it. You have to increase their basic reading skills first before they can handle it."

Sometimes, she said, even passing the test does not mean that a student can handle regular school work.

"You have to remember the test is on functional skills," Franklin said. "So there are many kids who learn how to fill out a job application and obey a street sign, but they still cannot comprehend a story well."

Indeed, one remedial reading class for 11th graders at Fairmont Heights had some students who passed the competency test and some who did not. It was impossible to tell them apart as the class worked slowly through a lesson on suffixes.

Diana Pullin, a lawyer for the federally funded Center for Law and Education, said that the high pass rates on the competency tests are "meaningless . . . because the schools are just teaching to the test." The center has mounted a wide-ranging drive against the tests, along with the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. NEA objects to the tests as an infringement on the power of teachers to grade and promote their own students.

Pullin said that no matter how easy or difficult the tests may be, testing itself is so uncertain an art that any competency examination would be an unfair barrier to graduating from high school. She added that the test would be "wrong if one student didn't get his diploma."

At Falls Church High School last year, Yaser Mousa was that student. He passed all of his courses -- some just barely -- but found out at graduation practice that he still hadn't passed the mathematics part of the competency test.

"I felt miserable. I just couldn't stand what was happening," he said. "I couldn't face my family. I just took off."

Mousa, a Palestinian Arab who moved to the United States in 1974, said that he stayed away for six weeks without his family knowing where he was, but then came home.

Now, he says, he holds two jobs as a cook, one paying $5.50 an hour, but hopes to take the test again in March and receive his diploma.

"Then I'll go to Northern Virginia Community College," he said, "and maybe get a really important job."

Three states -- New York in 1979, North Carolina in 1980, and Virginia in 1981 -- have started to require their graduates to pass uniform statewide examinations. Florida, in 1978, was the first state to plan to do so. But it was blocked until 1982-83 by a federal district judge in a lawsuit brought by federal antipoverty lawyers from the Legal Services Corp. and the Center for Law and Education.

An appeals court upheld the ruling and added that the state must prove that all of the material tested had been taught.

District of Columbia school officials said that they had the Florida court decisions in mind in devising their own version of a minimum competency requirement, to take effect in 1984. Under the D.C. plan, seniors who fail the test will have to take a one-semester "life skills seminar" that directly teaches all the skills on the examination. They will have to pass the course in order to graduate, said superintendent Floretta McKenzie, but not take the test itself again.

In Maryland, the competency tests are the final phase of an elaborate process that started in 1977 with the state board of education adopting first general goals of education, then 233 specific "graduation competencies" and elaborate curriculum guides, starting in kindergarten, to make sure all of the competencies are taught.

After the reading skills requirement goes into effect next spring, tests are to be developed to certify competency in five other areas: mathematics, writing, citizenship, "survival skills," and "world of work."

The state's education department has set 1987 as the date for enforcing the other competency tests. But the state has had such difficulty with the reading test (one version was invalidated for technical problems in 1980; the other has been given repeatedly since 1978) that critics doubt this can be met.

Although the enterprise, called Project Basic, represents a major expansion in state control over curriculum, it has encountered almost no resistance because the level involved, roughly eighth-grade skills, is so low.

"These are just the basics, that you can get agreement on from every school system and almost every parent," said Louise Waynant, director of instruction for Prince George's county schools. "It's up to the local schools to take it from there. If the state tried to make it any higher, then you'd get into a lot of state control and that would be a problem."

The movement for minimum competency tests "is as close to a grassroots rebellion against the education profession that we've had in this country," said Diane Ravitch, an associate professor at Columbia Teachers College.

"It's the parents and taxpayers and legislators reacting to an academic decline. The public is saying to the school people, 'You may not want standards, but we do.' But the standards are often being defined and implemented by people who were against them in the first place, and that's a problem."