WASHINGTON - It's not much of a report card.

Half of Americans say U.S. schools are doing only a fair to poor job of preparing children for college and the workforce. Even more feel that way about the skills that youngsters need to survive as adults, an Associated Press poll released yesterday finds.

"A lot of kids, when they get out of school, are kind of lost," said Jamie Norton, a firefighter in Gridley, Calif. "When you get out of high school, what are you educated to do?"

The views of the general population echo concerns from business and college leaders, who say they have to spend a lot of time and money on remedial education for people who completed high school but don't have the skills to succeed at work or in higher education.

Education ranks behind the economy and gas prices as a top issue for Americans, the survey said. However, nearly all of those polled said the quality of a country's education system has a big effect on that country's overall economic prosperity.

Education was generally viewed to be as important as health care and slightly ahead of the Iraq war. Among minority parents, education is just as important an issue as the economy.

Minorities and whites rate schools differently. Fifty-nine percent of whites rate their local school as good or excellent, compared with 42 percent of minorities.

Minority parents are more likely to think their children are getting a better education than they received as children. Overall, the majority of those surveyed said the quality of U.S. schools has declined over the last 20 years.

Three-fourths of those surveyed believe schools place too much emphasis on the wrong subjects. Asked which subjects should be given more time in school, more than one-third said math. English was a distant second, at 21 percent.

Parents may want more math in school because they feel unprepared to help at home, said Janine Remillard, who teaches math-related courses at the University of Pennsylvania's education school.

"Math is the subject that parents are often intimidated by," she said. "We've allowed a lot of kids to just say, 'I'm not good at math,' . . . and those kids become parents."

Most think the United States is just keeping up with or falling behind the rest of the world in education.

About half of those polled said standardized tests measure the quality of education offered by schools well, while the rest disagree.

The vast majority think classroom work and homework - not standardized tests - are the best ways to measure how well students are doing.

The AP survey of 833 adults and 854 parents of school-age children was conducted June 18-23 and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for each sample.

The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews.

Americans' Views on Education

An Associated Press poll found these

key concerns.

Math and English

were the subjects people most thought should be emphasized more in schools.

Half said

the U.S. education system is falling behind that of other countries, and six in 10 said the quality of American schools has declined in the last 20 years.

Just one in 10

said the quality of their local public schools is excellent. Nonwhites and Hispanics tended to rate the quality of their public schools lower than whites did.

A majority said

teacher pay should be based at least partly on the performance of their students.

- Associated Press