Teachers should encourage youngsters to use hand-held calculators to perk up interest in mathematics and spare them from repetitive drills, a top math expert said Saturday.

John Dossey, a leader of the country's math educators, said in an interview with United Press International that about 75 percent of schools bar calculators in math up to the eighth grade.Dossey, a member of the National Research Council's Mathematical Science Education Board, noted that a recent study, "The Nation's Report Card," on math said there are serious deficiencies in math performance by students.

"Most students, even at age 17, do not possess the breadth and depth of mathematics proficiency needed for advanced study in secondary school mathemetics," it said.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended universal use of calculators in math in 1986, but only about 25 percent of schools allow them below grade eight, Dossey said.

"There are things that can be done with a calculator even before students know math facts - addition, subtraction, division, multiplication," he said.

"There are calculator games and activities. Even in kindergarten, you say the word `one' or `two' and they poke the numeral."

Dossey, immediate past president of the NCTM and a math professor at Illinois State University at Normal, Ill., is an author of "The Nation's Report Card" on math.

The report showed some slight improvement in math skills since the early 1980s. But, mostly, it revealed relatively poor performance among the nation's 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds.

"What I found somewhat shocking is that only 41 percent of the students think they will be in a field that uses mathematics," Dossey said.

"Students don't see the worth of mathematics in their future lives," he said. "But somewhere around 70 percent to 75 percent of all college majors require mathematic work. In the Armed Services and in high-tech tool use anywhere, mathematics skill is needed."