Nearly half of the new teachers tested in Virginia flunked an on-the-job evaluation of their instructional skills and have been warned they will lose their teaching certificates if they do not pass the test next year.

Forty-five percent of the new teachers who were tested failed the examination, flunking an average of six or seven of the 14 skills areas in which they were judged, said William L. Helton, administrative director of the state Department of Education's personnel and professional development office.

Teachers were required to pass at least 10 skills areas, but one teacher failed all but one part of the evaluation, he said.

"We were surprised," said Helton. "It's startling."

He said the failure rate may have been high because "some may not have taken it very seriously" and may not have studied material prepared by the state to help them improve their skills.

Some national education experts said the results of the Virginia examination could be a reflection of major flaws in the schools of education that train teachers.

"I would say people are coming into the system without their teaching practices honed and this test is an affirmation of that," said Robert Palaich, a senior policy analyst in the Denver office of the Education Commission of the States.

Virginia's on-the-job assessments of instructional skills began with the current school year.

Three trained educators observed 668 first-year teachers -- about a third of the state's 2,100 new teachers -- three times within a 10-day period last fall.

The teachers were judged on skills that include making the best use of academic learning time, teaching to individual differences among students and enforcing clear and consistent rules of behavior.

The teachers also are being required to pass written tests.

The teacher assessments are part of a national movement, born in the past decade, demanding higher standards for teachers and students.

Virginia is one of 13 states to require teachers to demonstrate classroom competence in order to gain their certificates, according to the state Department of Education. The District is debating what type of testing to require of its new teachers.

Maryland will begin requiring its new teachers to undergo on-the-job testing next year.

The program is intended to couple the evaluation with a plan to sharpen skills of beginning teachers.

Next year all new teachers in Virginia will be required to participate in the evaluation.

Some state officials and local educators, who predicted that about a third of the teachers would flunk the test, said they were not concerned by the high failure rate because teachers have two more chances to improve their skills and attempt to pass the test.

"I don't think any one test indicates who's good and who's not," said Brenda Cloyd, president of the Virginia Education Association, which represents two-thirds of the state's public school teachers.

Cloyd criticized the Virginia program, saying teachers were not fully informed in advance of the skills on which they would be tested, and were not told what they did wrong for two months or more after they were observed.

Donna Caudill, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents most of the county's 7,000 teachers, said the test results prove what "I've been saying for a long time: that not the best qualified people are going into teaching."

Helton said elementary school teachers fared better in the evaluations than secondary school faculty, and black teachers performed slightly better than whites.

Among Northern Virginia school districts, all 14 of the Arlington first-year teachers who were assessed passed the test. In Alexandria, six of 12 teachers failed. In Fairfax County, 23 of 51 failed. Figures were not available for Loudoun or Prince William County.

Teachers who failed the test will be offered help in improving their skills at nine regional centers, including one at George Mason University in Fairfax. Those who pass will be awarded five-year renewable certificates.

Citing the experiences of other states, Helton and other educators said they expect the failure rate to drop in subsequent evaluations as teachers acquire the skills being tested.