Not since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in 1957 have academic standards and the American high school been the center of so much national attention:
* Colleges and universities are toughening admission standards, while high schools themselves are raising graduation requirements. Both colleges and high schools are calling for more classes in math, science, and foreign languages.
* Congress and President Reagan are on record with statements that education and training are fundamental to America's success and full employment. A number of bills to strengthen math and science programs are scheduled to be introduced during this session of Congress.
* Business and industry increasingly realize that in a closely linked world economy, new wealth and new jobs stem from the skills learned in our nation's schools. It is in business' interest to look for ways to help public schools.
* Improving the public high school may shape up to be a central issue in the 1984 presidential campaign. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) of South Carolina, who is expected to announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination soon, likens ''the role schools played in meeting the Soviet Sputnik threat of the '50s to the role they must play today in meeting the economic threat for the rest of this century.''
If the United States is going to compete in the world, well-educated individuals, not new oil or mineral discoveries, are widely recognized as the primary resource of the post-industrial, ''information'' society. That high schools are vital in the development of such individuals is certain to be an oft-repeated theme throughout the campaign, Senator Hollings says.
* High school students themselves have become more serious about academics in the last three years. Many more are studying harder and enrolling in more-challenging classes, says the 35,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
* Eighteen nationwide studies on improving the high school are currently in progress. Groups as diverse as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the National Association of Independent Schools, IBM Corporation, the Du Pont Company, and the US Department of Education are conducting them.
''The task that confronts high schools is that of coordinating the management objectives of public education with the management objectives of the military, ofbusiness, of industry, and of colleges and universities. New information networks that tie in with the overall goals of society must be created,'' says Harold Hodgkinson, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C.
For the 6,000 principals at the 67th annual NASSP convention here, the focus on academics is welcome indeed. It signals the end of what many considered a period of neglect.
''The mood now out in the schools and among principals is definitely upbeat, '' says Scott Thomson, executive director of NASSP. ''We welcome this kind of external pressure. It places secondary education at a crossroads and the path we are heading down is one of increased academic rigor linked to pursuit of excellence.''
This does not mean high schools should turn their backs on non-academic problems and the concerns students have, Mr. Thomson says. Caring teachers and administrators will always involve themselves with their students.
''We have to strike a balance between these needs and learning,'' says Bill Williams, a principal from Oak Ridge, Tenn.
But setting clear academic standards ''should be our first priority,'' he says. ''We are the only institution that teaches cognitive skills. Research shows that the family, the media, and then schools instill values. No one else teaches biology, chemistry, calculus.''
For the NASSP, the place to start on the task of setting standards is in math and science education. ''Recent surveys indicate that at the secondary school level 43 states have a shortage of mathematics teachers, 42 states report a shortage of physics teachers, and 37 states report a shortage of chemistry teachers,'' Thomson says.
Senator Hollings has proposed a bill to provide loans to college math and science majors with a forgiveness provision thatcancels 25 percent of the loan for each year of teaching in an elementary or secondary school.
Thomson also urges that business and industry help schools stop the exodus of talented math and science teachers from the classroom to the corporate office. NASSP seeks legislation to give tax incentives to businesses that provide summer jobs for math and science teachers.