MAYBE top US students never seem to quite stack up against elite peers from other nations. Perhaps select academic teams from Europe, Japan, and elsewhere always win those international Math-lympics titles and worldwide science essay test competitions.
Who cares? The average American school kid, the future stalwart of the work force, can surely match any typical student in the world, snap quiz for snap quiz and mid-term for mid-term. Right?
Not necessarily. Average US students lag behind their foreign academic counterparts in European nations studied for a recent report on schooling standards.
The run-of-the-mill pupil in French, German, and Scottish schools does better at crucial tests, in earlier grades, than does his US counterpart, according to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) survey.
''It's not only the top students in other countries who do well,'' said AFT president Albert Shanker. ''These countries enable large numbers of their average-achieving students to get a solid academic background.''
The reasons for the superiority of schooling in the three European nations, according to the AFT, include:
* A common, traditional academic curriculum that begins in primary school and continues into lower secondary school. In Scotland, for instance, students take common courses through eighth grade and study essentially the same subjects, with some elective options, through 10th grade.
* Strong incentives to work hard in school, even for those who do not plan to go on to university-level education. German students desiring high-skill apprenticeships or entrance to advanced vocational school must pass a ''Realschule'' comprehensive exam in lower secondary school (ninth or 10th grade), for instance. Potential employers often look at ''Realschule'' passage certificates, which list exam scores and school-course grades.
* Continued instruction in such academic subjects as history for students who enter vocational and technical training, instead of college.
''In the United States, in contrast, there is no common academic core that all students are expected to master,'' claims the report.
The fact that curricula is developed at the local level in the US means that both expectations for students and their actual achievement varies widely, according to the AFT.
The teacher's federation has long pushed for a nationalization of standards, which many local administrators resist as an example of Washington interference.