Members of a House subcommittee charged yesterday that the Education Department's civil rights office has been lax in enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, handicap or age.

Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee on intergovernmental relations and human resources, said the office failed to insist on remedies for certain discrimination complaints and disbanded a "quality assurance" staff here that had been critical of its decisions.

Weiss further charged that a standard of "good faith" is being substituted for numerical goals in measuring states' compliance with plans to desegregate their institutions of higher education.

Harry M. Singleton, assistant secretary for civil rights, defended his office's record, saying, "I would never be a party to anything that would not be in complete compliance with our civil rights laws."

But Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who refused to address Singleton directly because of a dispute during a previous hearing, later told Weiss, "You've put your finger on what we've encountered with civil rights since 1964, and that's the question of enforcement."

Weiss described cases in which the quality-assurance staff criticized the office for failing to act against a school or school district that did not amend its desegregation plan, give special services to a handicapped child or provide a sign-language interpreter to a deaf college student.

In most instances, Singleton replied that he did not have specific information on the case.

Singleton said he decided to remove the quality-assurance staff because it had been "slowing everything down" by "reinventing the wheel" and second-guessing decisions made by regional offices and the Washington office.

"But the fact is," Weiss said, "that the quality-assurance staff at headquarters made serious allegations, you didn't like them and you disbanded the unit."

"I think that's unfair, Mr. Chairman," Singleton replied. "That really is. That's an incredible statement, and I'm taking exception to that."

Singleton said he "detailed people out" of the quality-assurance staff in Washington to regional offices. "Every regional unit has a quality-assurance unit," he said.

Singleton attacked "quotas" in school desegregation cases, saying that the Office of Civil Rights would not require segregated state colleges and universities to achieve numerical goals for black and white enrollment established in desegregation plans between the office and the states.

"Numbers can become quotas very quickly, and we all agree that quotas are anathema," Singleton said, adding, "We are going to look at the steps and measures that states take in achieving these goals, not the numbers themselves."

Weiss said that the "good-faith standard may perpetuate the violation" of black students' constitutional rights to equal educational opportunity