Mary H. Futrell, president of the 1.7 million-member National Education Association, said yesterday she will push the country's largest teachers' union to make a clear statement in support of nationwide tests for new teachers when it holds its annual convention here this summer.

Saying "the times have dictated that we place more emphasis on the professional issues" rather than on the NEA's traditionally liberal political agenda, Futrell asserted that the union will gain more influence later if it supports a nationwide professional exam now. "This is a way we can have a better voice," she said.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Futrell acknowledged that the NEA had a "fuzzy" position on the issue in the past, allowing its rival union, the 610,000-member American Federation of Teachers, to take the lead in pushing for new teacher testing. AFT President Albert Shanker called for a national test in January.

Futrell said that when the NEA's 8,000 delegates meet here this summer, she will ask them "to make a clearer statement, and a more positive one," in favor of testing new teachers.

The NEA historically has been opposed to standardized tests for students, as well as for teachers. A clear statement now in favor of a national test for new teachers -- even with caveats from Futrell -- could mark a significant philosophical shift for the organization.

"We were never opposed to testing," Futrell said yesterday. "We were opposed to the ways the tests were being used. And, let's face it, they were being used to discriminate."

A national test for new teachers has come to be seen as a key component of the package of educational reforms now under discussion in education circles and state legislatures. Supporters contend that it would ensure that teachers meet some minimum standard of competence while elevating teaching to the professional status of fields such as law and medicine.

National statistics project a critical shortage of teachers over the next five years. Some states that face shortages have discussed ways to lower accreditation requirements to attract new teachers. Teachers see a national exam as one way to guarantee that the new recruits meet at least minimum standards.

AFT spokesman Bella Rosenberg, informed yesterday of Futrell's comments, said, "It's great to see this kind of movement."

Futrell said a national test should be written by teachers themselves and administered by a credible testing firm such as the Educational Testing Service in New Jersey, which administers the College Board examinations, among others. She also qualified her support by saying that a national test should be part of an overall curriculum for new teachers, including a period of time spent as trainees in classrooms.

In addition, she said, states should be allowed to decide whether to require the test for their teachers. Shanker also has said the national test should be voluntary.

Futrell said she favors some form of national "evaluation" for current teachers, to judge their knowledge of subject matter, their classroom management skills and their ability to handle disciplinary problems. But she said she still opposes a test for current teachers, as does the AFT.

On another topic, Futrell said she strongly opposes Education Secretary William J. Bennett's suggestion that America consider establishing a two-track high school system, based on the European model. In an interview in Chicago last week, Bennett proposed a system with one track for college-bound students and another for students who decide not to go to college