A majority of Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to support public education, according to a new Gallup poll, and an even larger percentage would like to have practicing teachers subjected to standardized competency tests.

Sixty percent of those surveyed said they thought the "quality of teaching" could be greatly improved by testing teachers, while another 29 percent thought such tests could improve the teaching profession "to some extent."

On the issue of taxes and public education, 52 percent of those polled said they would be willing to pay higher taxes for education. That figure is up from 45 percent who said so two years ago.

Results of the poll, commissioned by the National Education Association, were unveiled yesterday at its 123rd annual convention here. The NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, has traditionally opposed testing teachers, despite the results of its own commissioned poll and against the tide of the growing education reform movement.

"We were not surprised by that finding," said NEA executive director Don Cameron. "We've known for some time how popular that idea is." He added that the NEA wants "a competent professional in every classroom," but mentioned in-class evaluations as an alternative.

While NEA officials yesterday gave no public indication that their no-test policy may be eroding, privately some conceded that teacher testing will soon become a reality in many states and that the NEA has found itself on the wrong side of a difficult issue that is popular with the public.

One testing program that has come under fire is in Arkansas, the only state to test all of its 28,000 public school teachers. Ten percent of Arkansas' teachers flunked in their first crack at the test this spring.

NEA fought the test in Arkansas, but it had the backing of the state legislature and Gov. Bill Clinton. Texas and Georgia have passed similar laws, and other states -- including Maryland -- have discussed teacher competency tests as a crucial part of any educational reform effort.

Interviews with some teachers at the convention indicated that the NEA's opposition to testing may be stronger than the opposition of some of its members.

"I think I would be willing to be tested," said Jane Wagner, a special education teacher from Iowa. "If we're really good teachers, we shouldn't be opposed to it."

San Diego NEA member Ralph R. Adams added, "I think competency testing has a lot of merit . . . . If I can't pass the test, I don't think I should be teaching."

Other results from the poll were encouraging for the union and for the teaching profession in general.

A majority of those surveyed, particularly in the South and West, thought that their schools were having a difficult time attracting good new teachers, and that low teacher pay was the problem. The NEA and its rival, the American Federation of Teachers, have been saying that for years.

When asked how much a high school teacher should be paid, the median response was $29,000, meaning half of the people questioned said more than that, and half said less. The average high school teacher earned about $24,000 in the last school year.

When asked how much an elementary school teacher should be paid, the median response was $27,000. The average elementary school teacher earned just over $23,000 last year.

In another finding, respondents were asked to rank teachers against various professions for prestige and work load. Most of those polled thought teaching was very demanding -- second only to medicine. But only 23 percent saw it as a prestigious job.

The survey was conducted by telephone between April 29 and May 20, using a national sample of 1,501 adults.