After an eight-day visit to China, Mary Berry, the Carter administration's top education official said Americans have much to learn from Chinese schools and colleges.

Berry, who is assistant secretary for education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, said the Chinese are "moving rationally and realistically" by having university admissions quotas for students from different regions and minority ethnic groups "in a field that has led to confusion and near-hysteria here."

She said the Chinese "have set the pattern for the world to follow" by opening up universities to older workers and other adults and by tying education closely to work by requiring students to spend part of their time on farms and in factories.

The Chinese experience, Berry said, "may not, in every instance, be directly applicable here. But the direction of their overall policy - in terms of access to education as well as of redefinition of education as something inextricably linked to the other aspects of human life - should, I believe, represent our basic direction also."

Berry toured schools in China - from nurseries to colleges - between Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, as part of a delegation of 14 prominent American educators. She met with China's minister of education, Liu Chai Yao.

She described her trip and expressed her views on Chinese education in a speech delivered in Chicago Thursday at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. A text of the speech was distributed by her office here.

In an interview here yesterday, Berry said American press reports about a reversal of Chinese education policies following the death of Mao Tse-tung were "premature" and "misleading."

Even though college entrance exams are planned for December for the first time in a decade, Berry said, "I don't see the Chinese giving up any of their (egalitarian) principles . . . .They said they don't want to face another cultural revolution in five years and create another kind of elite."

She said recommendations by local party and factory groups still play an important part in university admissions. In major national universities, such as the one in Peking, she said, quotas are being continued for different regions of the country and minority ethnic groups. Another goal is to insure that a majority of students "have worker and peasant backgrounds." Test results, she said, will only be used to help pick those to be admitted from within each quota group.

"The Chinese talk about this in a much more straightforward way than we do," she said. "They don't talk about 'affirmative action' and 'reverse discrimination.' . . . .I tried to explain the difference to them between quotas and goals, but they couldn't follow all that.

They have a healthy attitude toward disadvantagement," she continued. "It's 'Let's have quotas to make sure we have a percentage of different groups (in universities).' They're not concerned about the subtleties like we have to be."

Berry said the Chinese system of requiring students to work on farms or in factories was much different from the "career education" being promoted in American schools because it means "doing actual useful productive work."

During her visit she said, she saw elementary school children assembling voice boxes for dolls and high school students working in factories that make automobile parts.

"Obviously, we have no intention of putting 6-year-olds to work here," she said in her speech. But Berry added in the interview: "There's nothing wrong in having school children making something useful and selling it. They could use the money for extra things in the schools."

On one point, Berry said, she disagreed with her Chinese hosts. "For some reason the leaders believe in tests now and claim that Mao always did as well. In fact, they have more faith in examinations than I do," she said. "I tried to warn them of the pitfalls, but to no avail."