A growing number of nations are doing a better job than the United States in getting young people through high school and college, a study found.

Among adults ages 25 to 34, for example, the United States is 10th among other industrialized nations in the share of its population that has a high school degree. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. adults in that age group have at least a high school education.

Nations such as Korea, Norway, the Czech Republic and Japan have had faster growth in high school completion, and have passed the United States on the way up the rankings.

"As they close that competitive gap, they may close other competitive gaps that are a consequence of increased education," said Barry McGaw, director of education for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (search).

The 30-nation group develops the yearly rankings as a means for industrialized nations to measure their education systems against those of their global peers. Although titled "Education at a Glance," the yearly report has ballooned into a 450-page compilation.

In the study, the older the population, the better the United States fares. It remains first in high-school completion among adults age 55-64 and 45-54, and fifth among adults age 35-44.

High school participation rates have not declined for the United States, but they have increased much faster in other countries, McGaw said. Korea, for example, ranks 24th among adults ages 55 and older but first among more recent high school students, ages 25 to 34.

"The one area you remain ahead is how much you spend," McGaw told U.S. reporters Monday. "They don't need to catch up with you on quality, because many of them are already ahead."

The report relies mostly on data from 2002 and 2001, although its achievement figures date to 2000. Organizers say those are the latest numbers available.

The United States has a higher share of its adult population ages 25 to 64 with at least a four-year college education — 38 percent — than any country other than Canada.

The United States also is second, this time behind Norway, in adults ages 25 to 34 who have gained such an education.

But in higher education, the United States is slipping, too, as other countries with traditionally lower college rates are closing the gap, the report says.

"If we are less competitive educationally, we will soon become less competitive economically," Education Secretary Rod Paige (search) said. "That's just a cruel fact."

The high school findings come as President Bush (search), in a tight re-election race, has promised more spending and testing in later grades to ensure a high school diploma has value. His opponent, Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts, has criticized Bush for failing to enforce the high school graduation provisions of his own education law.

Under the education overhaul of 2002, schools must show yearly progress for many historically disadvantaged groups, including minorities. No other country in the economic coalition has committed to measure achievement that way, a method designed to ensure schools do more to help underperforming children.

McGaw said it would probably take a generation to see the enormous educational improvement envisioned by the U.S. government. Paige disagreed, saying Bush's education law will lead to results over the next few years that will "significantly uplift our hopes."