National skills testing tops Bush's education agenda


WASHINGTON -- The concept is as old-fashioned as the school marm with her ruler: Students ought to know certain things by a particular point in their educational career, or remedial action is called for.

This rigid educational approach fell out of vogue during the free-thinking decades of the '60s and '70s, when creativity and individuality were more prized than rote learning, and educators began to recognize that students adapted to the process unevenly because of different cultural backgrounds.

But the demand for students to be able to meet common standards is back, more broadly and more forcefully than ever, as President Bush's drive to improve the quality of U.S. schools builds rapidly toward an unprecedented system of national examinations.

For the first time, American students would be measured not simply in comparison to one another but also against a nationally agreed upon benchmark of what each of them ought to know.

"Eighteen months ago, you wouldn't have even have heard mention of national examinations in polite company," observed David W. Hornbeck, a former Maryland state superintendent of schools who has been a consultant on the project.

Now, Mr. Hornbeck says, the question on national testing is not if, but when -- and how high the standards will be.

In fact, the first results came in last week, after 6,473 students in grades four, eight and 12 from about 400 schools around the country took a sample math exam considered to be the forerunner of a comprehensive series of national tests offered to everyone in those grades.

The pioneer group did not do well. Beyond mastery of such basic skills as adding and subtracting, most of the students were lost. Maryland eighth-graders who took the test fared about average with their peers -- scoring a measly 260 on a 500-point scale.

"A lot of American children, when asked whether they think they're good at mathematics, say they are when they're not," U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander said at a meeting on the testing program last week. "A lot of parents think their school is OK when it's not."

Mr. Alexander said the real value of an American Achievement Test, as a panel sponsored by the Bush administration and the National Governors' Association envisions, "is to ring an alarm bell."

The math results should set bells ringing "all night throughout the country," he asserted.

National exams are the most fundamental feature of the school reform drive in which Mr. Bush and the governors are participating, said Roger B. Porter, Mr. Bush's chief domestic affairs adviser. They are the means by which deficiencies are to be uncovered and progress toward correcting them measured.

But Mr. Porter acknowledged that use of such tests could be extremely controversial with those who fear the specter of a nationally imposed curriculum as teachers inevitably "teach to the test."

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat who chairs both the National Educational Goals Panel and a new interim group created to start developing standards and tests, says his colleagues have tried to meet the strongest objections head on.

There would be not just one test, he said, but a series of them developed with as much involvement as possible by teachers and administrators at the local level. Further, the tests would not be required of any school system, nor would they be used as a hurdle students must clear in order to advance or graduate, he said.

The exams would not follow the old multiple-choice mold of the standardized achievement tests used for years in many states throughout the nationa, but would ask students to demonstrate critical thinking, writing skills and problem-solving.

"In an ideal world, you would want teachers to teach to these tests," Mr. Hornbeck said.

Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana told Mr. Bush at the panel meeting that there has probably been less resistance than anticipated to the idea of national school standards and testing because Americans realize students here are flunking out of the job market when they try to compete with better-educated workers abroad.

But the hardest part of the panel's job is still ahead as it wrestles with how to set standards that most everyone can agree are fair and reachable yet worth attaining.

It took nearly 3 1/2 years to develop and administer the national mathematics test. And given the precise nature of the subject matter, that should have been easy compared with developing standards for English, science, history and geography, which are also to be included.

But Governor Romer said he is determined to move faster, possibly producing a prototype for the American Achievement Test within one year.

"When you've got 50 governors and one president pushing, somehow things start to work," he said.

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