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Long slide down the rankings

The United States has slipped dramatically behind in international rankings of the numbers of teenagers completing school. The figures will only add to the growing outcry for change in the way America educates its children.

Forty years ago, America led the world in the number of citizens who won high school diplomas. Now it is trailing 28 of the 29 major countries in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, managing only to stay ahead of Mexico, according to a new OECD report.

"Attainment has gone from top-rank in the older generation of Americans towards the bottom in the present generation," declared Andreas Schleicher,principal administrator at the OECD and one of the report's authors.

For decades, the US took comfort in the fact that as the leader of the industrialised world it was putting more children through more years of school than any other country. About 40 years ago, 77 per cent graduated from high school - compared with 38 per cent in France, 60 percent in the UK, or 71 per cent in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland, then its closest competitors. Figures such as these allowed Americans to feel their schooling was certainly the most inclusive - if not always the best - in the world.

But the new figures change the picture entirely. In 1996, the OECD reported, the graduation rate for 18 year olds was 72 per cent. While the US figure had dropped slightly, other countries had leapt ahead, to 85 per cent in France and 86 per cent in Germany.

The US can take some comfort from the fact that the change in the pole positions came mainly from other countries catching up, in some cases by adopting its own comprehensive education system.

The US still leads the world in college enrolments, with more than 50 per cent of American 18-year-olds going on to higher education, compared with an average of one-third for OECD countries.

But the OECD's Mr Schleicher said this is "likely to change soon". He noted that the US also has a college drop-out rate of 37 per cent, one of the highest.

Education policy in the US is already in an uproar over the state of the nation's schools. A plethora of solutions - voucher systems, privatisation,semi-independent "charter" schools, new training for teachers and new standards for pupils - are being thrown at school systems.

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