The biggest US teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers, has called on the federal government to follow European countries in introducing a curriculum and national examination for all high-school pupils.
This would improve the education of the 75 per cent of young people who do not go to college, and give their prospective employers more information.
In the three countries studied by the AFT - Germany, France and Scotland - national tests provided a greater incentive to students.
"All we have to graduate high school are minimum competency tests for low-level reading, writing and arithmetic," said Albert Shanker, president of the 875,000-member union. "In Europe, students know their exam results are going to be looked at by employers."
The idea of a common curriculum and a national exam is intensely controversial in the United States, where education is constitutionally a matter for individual states.
President Clinton has enacted legislation in an attempt to coordinate standards on a voluntary basis, but even these timid steps have been greeted with hostility.
The AFT is not expecting its recommendations to be adopted, but it is hoping to spark debate.
Its report, What Secondary Students Abroad are Expected to Know: Gateway exams taken by average-achieving students in France, Germany and Scotland, said that in France, more than 60 per cent of the age group earn brevets de college. In Germany, 69 per cent of pupils meet standards set by the Realschuele certificate. In Scotland 98 per cent of pupils pass Standard grade exams, it said.