As many as 85 to 90 percent of America's college students have an inadequate knowledge of the modern world, according to the first national study of how well college students understand world issues.

The two-year inquiry showed that the majority of students could not correctly answer questions about such issues as the world's fuel consumption, the OPEC countries, world religions and the origins of the State of Israel. Even the high scorers on the test "had misconceptions" about such areas at the U.S. record on human rights and the purpose of recent multilateral trade negotiations.

The study, which included 3,000 randomly selected students at 185 public and private colleges and universities, ranging from Yale and Georgetown to the Appalachian Bible College, also concluded that 85 percent of the schools lack educational programs in international affairs that are appropriate to modern times.

The Council on Learning, a nonprofit organization that studies higher education, and the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., the nation's largest producer of college entrance exams, conducted the research. It was paid for by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education and the Exxon Education Foundation.

Most American insititutions of higher learning operate in a "provincial rut," and still cling "to a 19th century view of the world," said George W. Bonham, chairman of the Council of Learning task force which conducted the survey.

Less than 10 percent of the seniors and freshman tested said they had taken even one course in international affairs in college. Most of the students said they received the bulk of their information on world affairs from television. Those who said they also regularly read newspapers and magazines scored higher than those who reported getting the bulk of their information from TV.

The test was administered much like the college entrance exam but with looser time limits. A committee of specialists in the field of world affairs determined that students who answered fewer than two-thirds of the test questions correctly would be defined as having an inadequate knowledge of world affairs. Little difference was found between the scores of college freshmen and and college seniors, the study concluded. Among the most well-informed of the students were history and mathematics majors. The lowest scorers were education majors.

Most students also said more discussions on foreign affairs were held in their high schools, than in their colleges, said Winton H. Manning, vice president of the Educational Testing Service.

The test contained 101 complex questions, sometimes accompanied with maps and graphs, which would require students to know something about economics, politics, defense, energy, population, nutrition and health from a global perspective.

"The idea was not to ask questions like what is the capital of Egypt or who is the president of France," said Manning. "Simply knowing odd facts about another society does not necessarily promote global understanding."

One question asked what President Carter was concerned about when he urged all nations to defer the development of the nuclear breeder reactor. Others asked students what was one of Buddhism's most basic teachings, what causes inadequate nutrituion in poor countries, what was the major accomplishment of the Helsinki Accords with respect to human rights, and what is the major advantage to China of growing rice.

All of the questions came with four possible choices for the answer, and students were asked to select one.

The task force recommended that colleges and universities make a "fullscale effort" to make certain that international issues are incorporated into their existing courses. That would require "better teacher preparation, considerable reviews and revisions of textbooks," the study says.

The study also concluded that a greater emphasis should be put on the teaching of foreign language, because this would make more students aware of foreign affairs. Sample Questions on World Affairs

Here are four questions asked of college students on the Council on Learning world affairs exam; the answers are below:

President Carter was primarily concerned about which of the following when he urged all nations to defer nuclear fuel reprocessing and the development of the breeder reactor?

1) The possibility of nuclear weapons proliferation.

2) The occurrence of a catastrophic accident.

3) The emergence of uranium cartel.

4) The distortion of economic development priorities.

Which of the following lists is composed entirely of members of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries)?

1) Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt.

2) Great Britain, Norway, Mexico, United Arab Emirates.

3) Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Ethiopia.

4) Venezuela, Indonesia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia.

Which of following is shared by Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism?

1) The concept of a messiah.

2) A general tendency to proselytize

3) a Tradition of mysticism.

4) Insistence on personal indentification with a single religion.

The establishment of the Western sovereign territorial state and the modern state system is usually dated from the:

1) Breakup of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

2) Development of feudalism in the early Middle ages.

3) Peace of Westphalia in the mid-17th century, which brought European conflicts fought in the name of religion to an end.

4) Peace of Versailles in the early 20th century, which dealt with the aftermath of the breakup of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

Answers: 1, 4, 3, 3