RICHMOND, SEPT. 27 -- Virginia Education Secretary James W. Dyke Jr. said today the state needs "radical educational reform" and urged educators to consider keeping students in the classroom year-round.

Dyke's comments came in the same week that the Maryland Board of Education recommended adding 20 days to the school year there and after the District school board's earlier endorsement of 40 additional days. Thus, the Washington area's top education officials have joined national experts in concluding that students need more time in the classroom to remain competitive with children from other industrialized countries.

"We should review the wisdom of maintaining a school calendar based on the agrarian principle that required three months off in the summer to handle farming duties," Dyke, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's top education lieutenant, told the state Board of Education.

"Many researchers -- including observant parents -- agree that many of our kids now actually lose academic ground during the long summer break," he said.

The school year currently is 180 days in all three jurisdictions. The cost of a longer academic year and potential opposition from parents mean that change apparently is a long way from reality, however, even with support for the idea from educators.

"Obviously we no longer have an agrarian economy," said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Kohann H. Whitney (Centreville). "Our children have to compete with children from other countries who are going to school year-round."

Dyke, in describing what he called Wilder's "vision" for Virginia schools, urged the state board to study whether a school year with shorter vacations spaced throughout the year makes more sense than having a long summer vacation.

He also urged the board to consider revamping the state's high schools in a way that would allow more students to choose vocational training instead of courses to prepare them for college.

Although Dyke said he was not calling for a program that would separate students by intelligence, he said Virginia needs to better prepare those not headed for college to get jobs. "By the year 2000," he said, "nearly 70 percent of nation's jobs will not require a college education."

Dyke didn't make a detailed proposal, but he noted that in Europe, students at "age 15 or 16" choose programs tailored to their plans after graduation.

Wilder aides said modern vocational training would be broader than the wood and metal shop courses that traditionally have attracted some students with limited academic promise.

Dyke stressed that all students still should be trained in math and science, and called for expanded instruction in those areas in elementary schools.

Many Northern Virginia educators said today that they were suspicious about any program that would force students to make career decisions early in high school.

"Youngsters should not be tracked at any point," said Prince William School Superintendent Edward Kelly. "The vocational tracks get labeled the 'dummy tracks,' unfortunately.

"I know I wasn't ready to say at age 15, 16 or 18 {that} I wanted to be a teacher or administrator."

Gail Nuckols, chairman of the Arlington School Board, said she is concerned about how local districts would pay for the changes. "The state is already talking about significant cutbacks in terms of education," she said.

Alexandria School Superintendent Paul W. Masem said year-round school might make better use of district facilities and could help students who need additonal time for learning.

Masem said he would not want to enhance vocational education at the expense of college training. And he asked, "How are we going to pay for this?"

"I don't want to hear about it unless they've got money for us," said Loudoun School Board Chairman C. Carroll Laycock Jr. (Blue Ridge) about the ideas.

Laycock noted that local schools already are straining under the burden of mandates imposed by state administrators. "We've got our hands full," he said.

Although Kelly said he supports year-round schools, other educators said the experience of his Prince William school district in the 1970s underscores an obstacle to the proposal.

Crowding forced Prince William to hold school year-round, an accommodation that was widely unpopular in the community and eventually abandoned.

Suzanne F. Thomas, president of the Virginia school board, said the idea of year-round schools also was studied by an education commission convened by Wilder's predecessor, fellow Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, but rejected because it was costly and would likely face opposition from parents.

"You have to understand that the main objection has always been from parents," Thomas said.

Dyke's ideas were not put to a vote today by the Virginia board, but members promised to study them. The board has the power to order local school districts to adopt the initiatives, although districts could choose to make the changes.

In Maryland, the proposed lengthening of the school year now goes to the legislature and the governor for consideration. The District board's endorsement of a longer school year came last year, but board members have not yet discussed exactly how the plan would work or when it would begin. Staff writers Steve Bates, Rene Sanchez and Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.