It stands like a geologic core sample drilled out of bedrock - a slender bore probing deeply into broad but hidden formations. Like any core sample, it tells plenty on its own. But it reveals even more when compared with other samples.
The latest survey of American students' views - ''The Mood of American Youth, '' published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) - invites both kinds of reading. Seen in isolation, it reveals the current structures of teen-age thought (see last week's column). Seen in context, it speaks volumes about how those structures are evolving, how they compare with adult structures, and how they appear from a female perspective.
* Historical comparison. To set the data from this survey (collected in 1983 ) against the results of a similar survey done in 1974 is to see a remarkable evolution of attitudes. Over the nine-year span, the concept of ''student power'' has fallen into abeyance. Students still value their student councils as organizers of the social life of the school. But only one-third of those polled think councils affect decisions about school rules (a major issue in the 1960s and '70s), and only 14 percent see them as affecting decisions about course offerings.
With the trend away from student power has come an increasing acceptance of authority. Asked to rate their principals, nearly 80 percent of the students gave them high marks for understanding and caring about student problems - up from 50 percent in 1974. This may help explain the increased interest in higher education. In 1974, only one-third of those polled were aiming at four years of college or university education. In 1983, that number had risen to 54 percent. Students also report a reawakened interest in reading: Whereas only 1 percent in 1974 said reading was a leisure-time hobby, 49 percent said so in 1983.
On the home front, marriage seems more on their minds: More than twice as many students in 1983 (13 percent) say they plan to marry immediately after high school than said so in 1974 (6 percent). And religion has clearly come back into the mainstream: The 25 percent minority who, in 1974, said they were churchgoing has become a 65 percent majority in 1983.
* Student-adult comparisons. Since the '70s, students have moved strongly into accord with the values of their own families. In 1974, only half the students claimed to have no difficulties with other family members; in 1983, three-quarters of them felt that way. Similar figures arose when students in those two polls were questioned on whether they shared their parents' values on the use of drugs.
Perhaps the most interesting comparisons, however, arise when students and adults are asked substantially the same questions. Is your local school doing a better-than-average job? Some 75 percent of the students in the NASSP poll said yes. In a 1983 Gallup Poll on Education, only 31 percent of adults said yes. In that poll, too, adults listed the lack of discipline as the No. 1 school challenge - although only 1 in 10 students thinks it constitutes a ''very serious'' problem. Parents also take a dimmer view of students holding after-school jobs than do the students, who overwhelmingly support the idea.
* Male-female comparisons. Among the most telling threads to be teased out of the NASSP figures are those dealing with women. Females, rather than males, may well be the students educators most like to teach: They do about one hour more homework a week and read more than their male counterparts. Where males put ''career success'' first and ''happiness'' second in their ultimate goals, females reverse that order. No slaves to the distaff, however, they now place more importance on college preparatory courses than do males - the reverse of the 1974 findings.
Telling, too, are the insights into the place that motherhood still holds in our society. By a wide margin, both male and female students say they can discuss problems more easily with their mothers than with their fathers. And ''less than 20 percent of the students feel that full-time jobs and care of small children are compatible,'' says the NASSP survey. Yet it is the females, and not the males, who see themselves and are seen as being the more advanced. By a 3-to-2 margin, students think their mothers are ''more up to date'' than their fathers. They seem to feel that way about themselves, too: Female students, for example, show far more affinity for up-to-date music (New Wave and Punk) than do the males, while males depict themselves as more politically conservative than females.
How does it all add up? The survey paints a portrait of a student body that thinks of itself as more traditional and less experimental, more cautious and less challenging, more home-oriented and less rebellious, than previous generations. In a nation longing for stability, that's a comfort. In a nation also needing profound change, that could be a liability.
But one thing seems clear: It is the young women who seem to hold the promise. The profile of women that emerges suggests that both motherhood and intellectual development are highly prized - and that both appear attainable within a traditional moral framework open to new ideas. If these are truly the women of America's future, there is cause for great hope.
Discussing my problems is easiest with my. . . %Male %Female 1. Mother 69.3 77.6 2. Father 49.6 23.1 3. Brother 17.2 12.1 4. Sister 13.0 25.1
Worst influences on young people %Male %Female
1. Drugs 49.4 44.1 2. Alcohol 9.8 11.8 3. Peer pressure 6.9 11.4 4. Television 6.5 7.9 5. Violence 6.0 7.7 6. Sex/poor morals 3.6 6.9 7. Threat of war 4.5 2.5 8. Unemployment 1.8 4.6 9. Music 2.0 1.7 10. Other mass media 11.8 11.8
Important part of life %Male %Female
1. Sports/fitness 90.2 89.8 2. Music 75.7 85.4 3. Automobile 75.3 77.5 4. Newspapers 70.6 77.1 5. Type and style of clothing 65.7 80.9 6. Magazines 63.5 61.3 7. Television 60.1 56.1 8. Table and video games 51.2 31.0
Agreement with parents father mother
1. Drugs 75.6 82.6 2. Education 74.6 81.2 3. Work 73.0 80.4 4. Politics 69.2 77.6 5. Choice of friends 66.8 74.4 6. Religion 65.5 74.0 7. Sex 62.4 69.4 8. Clothing 53.0 64.5