All across the United States on Saturday, some 1.7 million teenagers underwent one of middle-class America's rites of passage. For three hours of agony and apprehension, they struggled through the interminable pages of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, checking off what they prayed were the correct answers to a numbing succession of multiple-choice questions, knowing all the while that how they fare on this test of their intelligence and luck will have a great deal to do with where they attend college in the fall of 1991 or 1992.

Or, for that matter, the fall of 1995 or 1996. If you think that the classrooms where the test was administered last week were filled entirely with high school juniors and seniors, think again. According to a report in the New York Times, more than 100,000 of those taking the test were seventh- and eighth-graders, some of them a mere 12 years old; nearly all of these, Anthony DePalma wrote, took the test "either to enter special summer programs for the academically gifted or to prepare early for the college application process."

These precocious testees are, to be sure, a small percentage of their entire age group, and account for only 6 percent of those who took the test. But if their numbers are relatively minor, their significance is not. The growing numbers of students who take the SAT well before their allotted time reflect not merely what some see as the decline of youthful innocence in our high-pressure society but our eagerness to accept test-taking skills as a substitute for comprehensive education.

To some observers, DePalma wrote, "imposing the anxiety and stress of the SAT steals yet another thread of childhood from youngsters who are growing up too fast." But if this is so, as no doubt it is, then it must be viewed as merely a small part of a massive phenomenon against which there seems to be no effective resistance. Ours, after all, is a society in which mass-market culture retails intense sexual images to persons of all ages, in which consumerism is firmly entrenched in the middle-class mind before the first day of grade school, in which the terrible perils of urban life are visited upon the very young, in which children are routinely exposed to televised images of warfare.

In such a culture, how can anyone expect teenagers to go untouched by pressures for scholastic one-upmanship? Premature SAT testing may well be "hideous," in the description of one mother who declined to let her 12-year-old son participate, but it is symptomatic rather than uncharacteristic and must be seen in that light. We also do well to bear in mind that, as social historians have been pointing out of late, the ideal of stress-free, innocent youth may well be more a conceit of Victorianism than an innate human characteristic; childhood seems to adapt to fit the age, and ours is one that -- its rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding -- imposes the burdens of maturity on children when they are very young.

To say this is not to applaud college-level scholastic testing of 12-year-old children but to point out that in today's climate it seems both inevitable and inescapable; people can make individual decisions about participation, but the trend itself is so powerful as to be irresistible. However, the parallel trend toward overemphasis on test scores is another matter altogether; it is a question of educational policy, one that is -- or should be -- open to public debate.

No one who gives contemporary American education even a cursory glance can fail to be impressed, or depressed, by the extent to which it has become a captive of the testing syndrome. From grammar school through high school, educators responded to the great wave of criticism that descended upon them during the 1980s by resorting to the quick fix of test score improvement. Egged on by the press, which gave excessive and often ill-informed coverage to the data supplied by school administrators, the educationists engaged in a desperate campaign to appease their critics with improved student performance on standard tests.

Not a great deal of improvement was actually made -- in many school systems test scores showed only minuscule progress, while in others they merely failed to decline -- but it wasn't for lack of trying. In many classrooms the emphasis shifted from basic education to intensified preparation for testing. School systems under fire from restive legislatures or boards of education turned on the screws, pressuring students to do well on tests in the hope that the results would reflect favorably on their teachers and administrators.

All of this took place, not coincidentally, at the same time adult Americans were coming under self-inflicted fire for the sin of "cultural illiteracy." For this phrase we must thank E.D. Hirsch Jr., of the University of Virginia, whose book "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" set off a storm upon its publication in 1987 that has scarcely abated four years later. The essence of Hirsch's argument, though he couches it in more polite and elaborate terms, is that "education" consists of being able to supply the right answers in what amounts to an SAT test for adults: to know that "Romeo and Juliet" is a play by William Shakespeare, but not necessarily to have read it.

Thus Hirsch, a distinguished scholar who should know better but seems utterly unrepentant, gave academic legitimacy of sorts to the underlying assumption of the testing syndrome: that education consists not of broad knowledge and deep understanding but of highly developed skill at charades or blindman's bluff. That's certainly what's being played by the 12-year-old who, according to DePalma of the Times, "thinks he can handle the algebra on the test, even though he has never studied it in school, and he figures that he has enough familiarity with geometry to eliminate obviously incorrect answers and take an educated guess on the right ones, a strategy endorsed by coaching centers."

These centers, which along with handbooks for test preparation have prospered in response to parental anxieties about test score competition, operate on the theory that the SATs and other tests can be managed through savvy and manipulation. They exist not to educate the children who patronize them but to improve their SAT smarts, the middle-class equivalent of street smarts. They deal not in real knowledge but in numbers, the kind parents love to see: SAT scores rising over the years from 1,000 to 1,150 to 1,320, until Harvard itself lies prostrate before the apple-cheeked applicant.

The cynicism of those who operate the centers and write the handbooks is not without its amusing aspects; in the good old American fashion they're taking advantage of a situation they didn't create, just like the firms now spewing out American flags and Desert Storm T-shirts. Who's to blame them? The fault lies not with the opportunists but with those who manage the system; since in the end they are accountable to us, in the end the blame is ours.

In the end, too, we'll pay for it; in particular, our children will pay for it. We have become a society that rattles on interminably about education but doesn't have a clue about what education really is. We also rattle on a lot about global competitiveness, but a generation raised to play the intellectual equivalent of Trivial Pursuit isn't exactly going to have a competitive edge.