A substantial number of last year's college freshmen took remedial reading, writing or arithmetic, a Department of Education study reports.

In a study certain to fuel the debate on the state of America's high schools, the National Center for Education Statistics found that one in four freshmen signed up for remedial math courses alone in the 1983-84 academic year.

In addition, 21 percent took remedial writing courses and 16 percent took remedial reading courses.

Those figures varied somewhat by geography and the type of institution. At public colleges, the number of freshmen enrolled in remedial courses was higher than at private schools. The Southeast and Southwest regions of the country had the most college freshmen in remedial courses.

Nationwide, the report found that 63 percent of colleges and universities had more students enrolled in remedial courses in 1984 than in 1978.

University professionals and other education experts said those numbers were not surprising, but rather indicative of what they called inadequate college preparation by the nation's high schools. The most recent groups of college freshmen, they said, have been caught between tougher college admission standards and the inability of high schools to catch up.

"In the 1970s, there was a mistake made in lowering the standards and not making sure that the kids were up to speed to go to college," said Nancy Young, a spokesman for the National Education Association. "But I think it's past tense because now the stress has been to raise standards and not to lower them."

"I don't see any difference from what's normally been the case," said Allan W. Ostar, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). "While the colleges would welcome an opportunity to eliminate all remedial courses, they simply can't do it because the students simply aren't coming out of the high schools with the requisite math and science backgrounds."

Ostar said high schools "don't have the organic chemistry, they don't have the labs, and they certainly don't have the teachers" to meet the growing demand for higher standards coming from parents, from college admissions officers, and from state legislatures that are increasingly reluctant to approve funds for remedial courses at state-supported colleges.

College professionals were careful not to blame the high schools alone for turning out ill-prepared graduates. A more complicated set of social and economic factors, as well as public policy choices, is behind the general decline in America's high schools, they said.

For example, they said, most public school systems have not been able to pay qualified mathematicians enough to attract them to teach in high schools, when they can now get better-paying jobs in business. Also, they said, suburban schools offered more rigorous training than schools in inner cities and rural areas.

"These are problems that are built up over the years," said Mary Margaret Walker, spokesman for AASCU. "I don't want to put the entire blame on the secondary schools."

The new numbers on remedial course enrollment occur at a time when educators are cautiously hailing the continuing jump in student scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, after two decades of decline.

The remedial education figures are contained in the premier issue of a new Education Department publication called "Indicators of Education Status and Trends," which was released yesterday.