When young Americans graduate from high school, many of them lack the basic reading, writing and math skills needed to perform adequately in entry-level jobs.

This situation creates problems not only for job-seekers but also for potential employers, who are becoming increasingly worried about being able to hire workers who can measure up.What's more, various surveys have shown that American students do poorly compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations. This sitution handicaps U.S. firms when it comes to meeting foreign competition.

In response to this problem, business leaders proposed at congressional hearings this week that all high school students should be required to take a national competency exam before leaving school. They argued that such a standard test would ensure students have a demonstrated ability to perform at high levels in general school subjects.

Of course, such a test would require national standards to be a meaningful measure of achievement.

A national competency test for graduation makes sense. Students ought not to leave school without being able to demonstrate that they can function in the subjects they supposedly have been taught.

Unfortunately, many educators oppose a national competency standard and testing.

Some states already require high school students to take competency tests before graduation. Utah does not require such tests, although the education system has graduation requirements and does testing to see how students are progressing in meeting those requirements.

State Superintendent Jay B. Taggart says he would be reluctant to set national standards because of the differences between the states. Yet that is precisely the complaint of business leaders.

Testifying before Congress, the businessmen said there is no way to compare achievement from state to state. An employer has no idea if a high school graduate from one state will have the same basic reading and math skills as a graduate from another state.

Private industry does not mind if the states conduct the tests but wants some kind of national standard used by everyone.

Teachers object that repeated testing is time-consuming; that it could encourage "teaching to the test," resulting in narrow knowledge; that it might raise dropout rates; and that it would take some local control away from schools to set their own standards. There also are arguments about the nature of testing, about bias and about what tests fail to measure.

No test can meet all possible objections. But that's no justification for refusing to establish some kind of national standard in basic school subjects and to test for competency in meeting those standards.

It's common knowledge that anyone who does not know where he or she is going will have a hard time getting there. Basic competency standards can at least point students in the right direction and give them minimum, clearly identified goals they know they must meet.