College-bound high school seniors in the People's Republic of China appear to be a bit less well-prepared in math, chemistry and physics than their U.S. counterparts, according to an analysis by U.S. experts of the Chinese college entrance exam.

But in geography, according to a U.S. analyst, it appears that "training and education is more intensive and thorough at the secondary school level in China than it is in the United States."

The analyses are based on a translation by the U.S. Office of Education of the standard, China-wide college entrance test given in 1978 to 6 million youths and young adults -- from whom about 300,000 were then chosen to attend institutions of higher education.

The test was given at precisely 3 a.m. July 20, 1978, all over China. Nationwide tests had been adandoned 13 years earlier, but were reinstituted in 1977 to identify the most promising students.

Many of the questions are on Chinese history and Marxist philosophy, but history questions in the Chinese exam such as the following should be answerable by better U.S. college-bound students:

"Describe the important events in world or Chinese history that occurred in the years listed below:

"1776 . . . 1789 . . . 1871 . . . 1917 . ." (The answers, in case you didn't know, are 1776 -- U.S. declaration of independence; 1789 -- French revolution; 1871 -- Franco-Prussian war; 1917 -- the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.)

Similarly, the head of the math department of a leading private high school in the District of Columbia said most of the seven math questions are resonably standard algebra, trigonometry and related high school problems familiar to better college-bound U.S. seniors.

Since only about 300,000 Chinese youths enter institutions of higher learning each year while about 2.5 million U.S. youths do so, it's not strictly appropriate to judge whether the Chinese test level is equal to what the average U.S. college-bound student can do. A more appropriate comparison is with the better U.S. college-bound students.

Dr. Frank Swetz, associate professor of math and education at Pennsylvania State University who handled the math-evaluation of the Office of Education, said the seven-question math test in the Chinese exam reveals a "strong mathematical preparation and reflects a high expectation of student achievement."

It indicates, he said, a "quality secondary level mathematics program," but one which emphasizes computational and technical proficiency, a lot of memorization" and concentrates less on modern concepts that could lead to top-notch research.

"Our people are better problem solvers," he said in a phone interview.

"The curriculum itself, as outlined [in supporting materials] reflects almost none of the reforms of the 'modern math' movement. No mention is made of sets or set concepts, probability and statistics, or algebraic structure and algebraic properties of various operations," nor of geometry transformations or "motion geometry."

The program, wrote Swetz in his formal analysis, "appears classical in its conception and more representative of a program of mathematical studies of 20 or 30 years ago than of a contemporary one."

Summing up, Swetz said in the phone interview, "Our level of instruction and achievement [probably] surpasses theirs for the better students [here] who take advanced placement work." But he said our non-math majors would have trouble handling the questions Chinese liberal-arts majors are asked.

On physics, the Office of Education's evaluator, Dr. John W. Layman of the University of Maryland, wrote, "I would characterize the [Chinese] examination as comparable in level and style to a final exam in one of our standard high school introductory physics courses."

But he added that U.S. students who take an advanced placement course in physics or a combination chemistry-physics second-level course, "would be working at a much higher level than is indicated in these Chinese-documents."

Dr. Marjorie Gardner, University of Maryland professor of chemistry, said that the Chinese chemistry syllabus "appears to be somewhere between that of a junior high physical science course and a senior high conventional 11th grade chemistry course in the U.S. It is considerably below the level of the [U.S. high school] Chemical Education Materials Study and advanced placement courses."