The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities yesterday leveled a broadside at a range of educational practices which she compared to "tyrannical machines" that have spun out of control and operated against student learning.

In a 52-page report, Lynne V. Cheney faults the Scholastic Aptitude Test for not measuring knowledge of history and literature, textbooks for "being so dull that no one would read them voluntarily" and colleges for valuing faculty research more than instruction.

Some of Cheney's earlier criticisms of education were contained in reports required by Congress. But the timing of this critique was occasioned only by National Education Week, which began yesterday, the NEH said.

Cheney's role as a promoter of the nation's intellectual life has resulted in her previous reports on education receiving much attention. Her latest one already has: Unsolicited reactions from educators came by fax and phone even before the report's official release yesterday.

"I am delighted that my colleague has so clearly restated the education reform agenda. It cannot be repeated too often," said Ted Sanders, undersecretary of education.

Cheney criticized the Scholastic Aptitude Test used by many colleges and universities as part of their admissions screening. She said the test of verbal and mathematics skills excludes items on knowledge of history and literature.

"The idea that the specifics of what you have learned do not matter becomes a perverse message when it reverberates throughout the system," she said. "Schools teach to the test. . . . But what teaching the verbal component of the SAT means is that instead of discussing Langston Hughes's poetry or F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels, students are practicing the skills the SAT tests for."

Cheney called the United States the only industrialized nation that puts such emphasis on a test "that tries assiduously to be curriculum free." She recommended that Congress expand the National Assessment of Educational Progress sothat scores could be computed for state and local areas. The federally funded assessment will produce its first state data next year.

Donald M. Stewart, president of The College Board, which prepares the SAT, said that the admissions test was not designed to measure student knowledge and that Cheney "ignores the availability of the companion College Board achievement tests, which do assess a student's mastery of subject matter in 15 different academic disciplines."

Recently announced changes in the SAT, Stewart said, were "designed to encourage more emphasis on reading, writing, critical thinking and subject matter mastery." A Cheney spokesman said the changes had not satisfied her concerns.

As for textbooks, Cheney complained that educators "continue to teach reading with basal readers that make the very idea of books seem boring" and "continue to teach history with textbooks that drain all drama out of the past." She charged that "textbooks are frequently chosen without being read" because textbook selection committees rely on checklists that concern such features as indexes, charts and copyright dates.

Cheney recommended that teachers supplement texts with other materials, that reviewers actually read textbooks and that selection criteria be revised to be more like those recently adopted in California. The state's new guidelines for history texts, for instance, value those that "students will read . . . with interest, enthusiasm and pleasure" and have "writing {that} is vivid and dramatic without sacrificing accuracy."

Universities' emphasis on research in deciding which professors will receive tenure (in essence, a lifetime teaching position), Cheney said, has harmed instruction by reducing teaching loads of star professors and creating "an academic underclass" of part-time instructors. She identifies a trend among liberal arts colleges, long known for their focus on teaching, to emphasize research: Fifty liberal arts schools, led by Oberlin College in Ohio, have formed a group and now call themselves "research colleges."

Cheney said the fact that professors teach less in order to pursue research, leading colleges to hire more instructors, has contributed to tuition increases. Instruction usually consumes 40 percent of a college's educational and general expenditures, she said.

Colleges' priorities would shift, Cheney said, were more parents and students to select schools on the basis of instructional quality. She recommends that parents ask questions about the proportion of part-time faculty (37 percent nationwide in 1988), which professors teach introductory courses and what the class size is in introductory courses.

Cheney borrowed the phrase "tyrannical machines" from philosopher William James, who coined the term in a 1903 essay on the doctoral degree. He wrote: "The institutionalizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption."