Imagine an America without standards -- no weights and measures, anyone who likes drives a car, airline pilots who are long on enthusiasm but short on skills, self-declared brain surgeons, basketball players who can dribble but not shoot. It's a hair-raising vision, but exactly the situation we face in our nation's schools.
Alone among the industrialized nations, America has no national education standards. The product of our frontier past, "local control" is a venerated, even mythical tradition. But if it served us well in the past, it no longer does. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's national literacy study and the National Assessment of Educational Progress findings make the same point: As a nation, we have a dangerously low level of education achievement.
The House of Representatives took an important step in the right direction Wednesday, passing a Clinton administration bill, "Goals 2000: Educate America Act." Hopefully, the Senate will strengthen the standards section of the legislation as it moves forward.
National action is required because it is a national problem. Each year, one in five Americans moves; each year, our national economy -- and the global economy -- becomes more tightly knit.
Abandoning or replacing state or local standards is not the issue -- national standards can and should build on the best -- but only a few of the nation's school districts have standards of their own. About a dozen states have graduation standards, and that is not enough. Only Uncle Sam can provide the leadership. So far, the nation has moved at a glacial pace.
Four years ago, President George Bush invited the nation's governors to an "Education Summit" in Charlottesville, Va. Accepting the invitation was the head of the National Governors' Association Education Task Force, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. The president and governors soon issued a clarion call for standards: All students should be able to demonstrate "competency in challenging subject matter" in grades four, eight and 12.
More important even than the bipartisanship of the summit was its commitment to "absolute" standards, not norm-referenced tests. Once the exclusive province of testing experts, the distinction has important policy implications.
With grade equivalent tests, half the test takers are above average, half below. Only in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon are all the children above average. By way of contrast, pilots, doctors, CPAs, automobile drivers -- indeed, everyone who is tested for competence -- must demonstrate some absolute minimum knowledge and ability.
Absolute standards, of course, exclude people who do not reach the required level; but they include people who do. It makes no difference if you are above average or below average when you apply for a driver's license; what is important is that you know the rules of the road and how to drive.
Do education standards have practical implications? Consider high mathematics standards. While few kids study math if it is not required, a recent College Board study reveals that students black and white, rich and poor, Anglo and Hispanic -- who master algebra and geometry are all almost equally likely to go to college. Yet only a handful of schools across the nation require algebra and geometry to graduate.
The first serious effort to develop national achievement standards in academic areas is overseen by the National Governing Board of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Over the past two years, it has developed standards for reading and mathematics, and U.S. history and geography standards are to be released next year.
The first round of results -- released in mid-September -- is daunting. Only a fifth to a third of the students tested demonstrated "competency over challenging subject matter" for their grade.
Although NAEP standards are based largely on the judgment of teachers across the country, critics claim that the standards are too high, as if the problem with American schools is exaggerated expectations, not poor performance.
The critics -- with support from education bureaucrats and some congressional staffers -- want NAEP's standards side-tracked into a long range "research project." That would be tragic mistake.
It is a curious, even dangerous, idea that students are better off with no measure of what they know and are able to do. Thomas Gray was right: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." Or as Hobbes the tiger asks Calvin: "Your self-esteem is %J enhanced by remaining an ignoramus?"
For the past 30 years, as education quality has declined, we have learned that a high school diploma means little (except time served). This burden of ignorance falls specially heavily on the poor and disadvantaged; neither they nor prospective employers know how well qualified they are. These youngsters are playing a high-stakes game, and without standards they have no face cards in their deck.
The villain in the standards debate is a society that does not hold students to them. When kids fail to measure up, we all lose. If the Congress and the White House want to do us and the nation's students a favor, they will aggressively support national standards.
Denis Doyle is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.