We've all seen the bumper sticker which says, "My child is an honor roll student at such and such school."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that given the decline of America's educational system, that doesn't mean much anymore. But a new book by educational journalist Charles Sykes, "Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write or Add," will scare the socks off any responsible parent of school-age children or anyone else who cares about education in America.Sykes reports that only 2 percent of high school juniors can write well enough to meet national goals and only one in five 9-year-olds can perform basic mathematical operations. In fact, the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that "large proportions, perhaps more than half, of our elementary, middle and high school students are unable to demonstrate competency in chal-lenging subject matter in English, mathematics, science, history and geography."

"Further, even fewer appear to be able to use their minds well."

It should be no surprise then that average and top SAT scores are falling and America's students routinely rank at the bottom when compared with students from other industrialized countries.

The list of horrifying examples goes on. But the real question is, Why is this happening?

Sykes says there has been an attack on excellence and objective measures of learning in education in favor of a "feel good" curricula without value judgments. He traces part of this movement to the 1947 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development of the National Education Association.

"Organizing the Elementary School for Living and Learning" sought to remake schools in a progressive image. It declared that "human relationships must be put first" in education. "Is it more important for Dick to excel . . . or to learn how to live with the other boys and girls in the neighborhood?" the yearbook asked. Sykes notes the new curriculum emphasized the child's emotional well-being, beliefs and attitudes as well as cooperative learning and was suspicious of grades and tests.

This fit in nicely with early progressive educationist John Dewey's assertion that "I would have a child say not `I know' but `I have experienced.' " Today it would be called outcome-based education.

Fast forward 40 years to a Seattle, Wash., area junior high school where a science class features three weeks spent picking up cereal with tongue depressors - an exercise that was supposed to simulate the way birds feed. Or a California statewide standardized writing test which recently let eighth-graders use symbols, drawings, images and/or words - meaning the writing test did not ask them to write complete sentences - to answer questions. These included describing Einstein, the person.

Sykes cites a fourth-grade student sent home with a paper on which a note from his teacher read, "I love your story, especially the spelling," on an assignment in which the student had written "once a pona time I visited a tropical rian forist (sic) . . . ." Clearly, the child was an adherent of the "invented spelling" method, where the focus is "not on error, but on creation," according to its backers.

But where today's kids aren't getting basic curricula, Sykes says, they are being steeped in courses on self-esteem, feelings, sex education, thinly disguised political correctness, and human interaction.

To change things, Sykes says, parents have got to demand better education for their kids, and stop letting their own children off the hook when it comes to poor performance, study habits or academic priorities.

He's right. It's easy to blame the educators, but if parents themselves don't clamor for change, it will never happen.