The U.S. Education Department is planning to issue a "consumer guide" to standardized tests, examining in detail for the first time the way norms are reached and use of the major tests of reading and mathematics given in schools across the country.

Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary of education for research and school improvement, announced plans for the guide yesterday after a 3 1/2-hour meeting at the department with about two dozen test publishers, testing specialists and a West Virginia physician, John J. Cannell. In a recent study, Cannell reported that each of the 32 states that publish test results statewide showed scores above the national norm in elementary grades last year.

Of 167 large districts surveyed by Cannell, who heads Friends for Education, a West Virginia school reform group, 150 were above the tests' national norms for elementary grades.

"There was a near consensus that Dr. Cannell has identified an authentic problem in American education," Finn said at a news conference after the meeting, which was closed to reporters. Finn said the standardized tests, sold by commercial publishers, "tend to give . . . a misleading impression of the actual condition of education . . . that is more comfortable than it should be."

The test averages are based not on how students perform each year, but instead on scores attained by a national sample of students before the tests are issued.

At the meeting, the publishers of the six commercial tests most widely used nationwide defended how their tests are prepared and said they agree to let the department examine how their norms are prepared. Finn said the department might also repeat Cannell's study on a regular basis and expand it to find out what school districts use what tests and what scores they report. The publishers have refused to disclose such data on grounds of proprietary information.

David Deffley, general manager of CTB/McGraw, which publishes the standardized tests used in the District and Maryland, said, "The norms are the norms, and they're very, very accurate. The public is just learning that they're not produced every year. We have never hidden that. To norm annually is a tremendous cost . . . . The problem is the way {the tests} are used."

Finn said there is "considerable concern about {schools} teaching to the test, especially when the test is used year after year after year," while the sample groups receive no such preparation.