Compare their education standards and ours, and you'll have a new clue to the runaway industrial performance of West Germany and Japan.

That's one of the main points that's going to be delivered to the White House next month when a team of specialists completes what's described as "the first review of science and engineering education policies to be prepared at the presidential level in almost two decades." Conducted at President Carter's request by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, the report, now circulating in near-final draft form, introduces an additional suspect to the long-running inquest on what ails the American economy: the declining quality and scope of science, engineering and mathematics training throughout the education system.

While, as is so often the case in American society, the peaks are at world-beater levels, the rest of the system is decaying at a time when Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union have pinpointed mass science and mathematics training as strategic requirements for the modern state. The result, the report suggests, is that the United States is perhaps uniquely evolving into a two-culture society -- divided between highly trained, professionally engaged scientists and engineers and a scientifically illiterate mass with little or no comprehension of the workings of the modern world.

Meanwhile, the report notes, in Great Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan, "virtually the entire educated class of opinion leaders and decision-makers . . . has a high level of scientific and technical literacy. In the U.S., however, there is an increasing divergence in the science and mathematics qualifications between those secondary students interested in the science and engineering professions and those who are not."

Noting that most high school systems in the United States require only two years of mathematics and two years of science, the White House study points out, for example, that the German and Japanese versions of juniorhigh school far exceed that requirement and that their high school students go on to super-enriched math and science programs that have few counterparts here. Ironically, the Japan%ese are making good use of the Sputnik-crisis curriculum materials that were developed in the United States in the 1960s -- only to be abandoned or watered down here in response to complaints that they were too difficult.

As for Germany, the inquiry found that "the overall picture . . . is one of a very high level of science and math literacy among college graduates as well as a strong science/math understanding among the general population."

The key question, of course, is whether it matters that a large part of our population is uncomprehending of science and technology. After all, it is possible to use modern machinery without having the remotest notion of how it works; the ubiquitous hand-held electronic calculator is a perfect case in point.

The White House study, however, suggests that scientific illiteracy is drag on industrial performance and political judgment. Thus it notes reports "from U.S. industry that in some highly technical areas the time required to produce a product has increased as workers' base level of understanding of science and math has decreased over the past decade." The study cites the military services' complaints about the difficulty of obtaining recruits who can maintain sophisticated military equipment.

The inquiry also found that the British, in their long agonizing over plummeting productivity rates, have credited mass science and engineering education in Germany and Japan as major factors in the postwar industrial growth of those countries. Japan, with about half the American population, outproduces the United States in engineers; and Japanese students, the White House study reports, "view the engineering degree as a 'ticket' to business and social success in much the same way as the liberal arts degree used to be viewed in the U.S."

Only half of Japans's new engineers go into engineering, the report continues. "The others become civil servants and managers in industry. Around half of the senior civil service hold degrees in engineering or related subjects, and half of those are at the post-graduate level. In industry, about half of all directors have engineering qualifications." Similarly high proportions of leaders with advanced technical training are to be found in reigning bureaucracies of the other nations with which the United States competes in one way or another.

The American political and administrative tradition holds that the non-technical generalist leader can get by with the assistance of highly skilled advisers and that engineering management can make up for lack of trained skills on the factory floor.

The forthcoming White House report on science and engineering education strongly indicates that's no longer true. Whether this country can act on that diagnosis is a separate matter.