Almost half of the Hispanic high school students in the United States drop out before graduating -- more than double the rate for blacks and three times that of whites -- with 40 percent of the Hispanic dropouts never reaching 10th grade, according to a new report.

The report, by the National Commission on Secondary Schooling for Hispanics, also found that 76 percent of Hispanics who took the "High School and Beyond" achievement test scored in the bottom half of all students nationwide.

One-quarter of Hispanics who enter high school are overage, two-thirds of them attend inner-city high schools with a predominantly minority student body, and the Hispanic student is more likely to hold a full-time job while in school, the report found.

Hispanic leaders and educators called these new statistics alarming for both the native Spanish-speaking community and the nation as a whole. They noted that by the year 2000, Hispanics will pass blacks and Asians as the nation's largest minority group and will be in the majority in some areas of the country.

The commission concluded that until now these pressing education problems have been "overshadowed" by the politically explosive issue of bilingual education, which for many Hispanics has been the symbolic equivalent of voting rights for blacks. Deep cleavages over the bilingual education question have "evolved into intransigence which now inhibits any movement forward."

Sidestepping the thorny bilingual education issue, the 16-member commission concluded that Hispanics -- perhaps even more than other immigrants before them -- want to learn English and should be taught it more effectively.

"The surprise was going about the country and getting this response from both parents and students," said Rafael Valdiviesco, vice president for program and research of the New York-based Hispanic Policy Development Project, which sponsored the commission. "They really wanted to learn more English."

At the same time, Spanish should be taught and fostered as a useful tool, the report said.

The overall theme of the two-volume report is that the high dropout rate is a failure of the education system, which has not met the aspirations and special needs of its growing Hispanic population. The report blames curricula that do not address vocational needs of students, the lack of adequate counseling, low expectations for Hispanic students and cutbacks in federal aid.

That conclusion essentially flies in the face of some popularly accepted theories -- voiced by some Hispanics and Anglos alike -- that put more of the blame on Hispanics themselves.

One proponent of that view is Texas Tech University President Lauro F. Cavazo, a Hispanic, who has said and repeated in response to the report: "Hispanics have lost education; they don't value it anymore."

Paul N. Ylvisaker, the commission cochairman and a dean emeritus at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, replied, "I don't think it's fair to blame the victim."

Valdiviesco, the statistician for the commission, acknowleged the controversy that could be uncapped by the report. He agreed that some cultural differences do come into play, such as the work ethic for Hispanic men, which he said "does overshadow the education ethic." Many Cuban Americans, for example, drop out of school to work in a family business, he said.

Partly in an effort to deal with that problem, the report recommended that work and school "be clearly linked as early as junior high school."