Prof. Paul Hurd outlines a frightening national trend on today's op-ed page. American precollege students are heading toward scientific and technological illiteracy in a world where security and prosperity increasingly depend on science and technology. Dr. Hurd presented his warning to a convocation at the National Academy of Sciences last week.

At the meeting, educators told of steadily declining student achievement in mathematics and the sciences and of less demanding and more out-of- date curricula. School administrators confirmed an appalling shortage of science and mathematics teachers. The superintendent of Houston's public schools reported that thousands of students had graduated without ever having had a qualified math or science teacher.

Representatives of industry, both the new high- technology companies and the traditional "smokestack" industries, warned that they are already unable to find workers sufficiently trained and comfortable with mathematics and technology, and that their need for such workers is going to grow steadily. The secretary of defense linked the problem directly to national security because of manpower needs in both the armed services and defense industries. Numerous speakers reminded the audience that its literate work force has been a traditional advantage of the U.S. economy since the beginning of the industrial age.

Specialists reported that while science and mathematics education been allowed to fall into decline in the United States, it is being accorded the highest priority elsewhere. Prof. Hurd illustrates some of the ominous differences between this and other countries. Yet even more than in those other societies, democracy demands that citizens understand the choices they have to make. A very small number of American students are being well prepared for careers in science and engineering, but nearly everyone else--about 98 percent of high school graduates--is leaving school as a functional illiterate in these fields, in effect denied full citizenship.

Twenty-five years ago, Sputnik galvanized the United States into the realization that it had fallen way behind. This time, there is no single foreign threat--at least not yet--though the problem may be worse. Last time, there was an immediate federal response and the programs worked, until funding and attention dissipated in the late '60s. This time, there is little or no federal money available and a disinclination to look toward Washington for a solution.

Certainly the solution will require the efforts of nearly every sector of society. But the first question that needs to be answered is whether an enterprise run by 16,000 independent and underfunded school districts, with 95,000 directors (school board members) who have a 20 percent annual turnover, can do what is required without concerted leadership and money from Washington.