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Study Offers View of Other Countries' National Tests

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Washington--National achievement tests used in other industrialized nations to assess students' knowledge of the humanities offer valuable lessons for a similar test in this country, according to a report released this week by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The report, "National Tests: What Other Countries Expect Their Students To Know," provides excerpts in English of achievement tests given to secondary-school students--largely college-bound ones--in France, Germany, Britain, Japan, and the European Community schools.

Test questions presented in the report primarily cover history, with some from France's examination touching also on geography and philosophy.

The America 2000 education initiative launched by President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander calls for voluntary "American Achievement Tests" that would assess knowledge and skills in the core subjects of English, mathematics, science, history, and geography.

History and literature number among the subjects defined by the neh as "humanities."

In the report's introduction, Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the neh, backs the Bush Administration's call for voluntary national achievement tests.

"A system [of achievement testing] that now benefits a few of our students should be put to work for all," writes Ms. Cheney.

Indeed, the release of the neh report was timed to coincide roughly with the Bush Administration initiative so that it "complements or informs the public debate about a national test," said John McGrath, an neh spokesman.

Ms. Cheney's four-page introduction to the report is designed to "dispel the myths [about] a national achievement test," Mr. McGrath said.

In that introduction, Ms. Cheney contrasts achievement tests such as those shown in the report and those proposed by the Bush Administration with the tests most frequently used in this country for college admission, the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Testing Program.

The sat and act have "an arms-length relationship to curricula," Ms. Cheney writes.

"Our most common, high-stakes examinations are divorced from the classroom study of subjects like history; they do little to advance the notion that hard work matters," she continues.

"Achievement tests, on the other hand, convey the idea that mastery of school subjects is important," she writes.

Keeping Tests in Context

A U.S. national achievement test would not necessarily dictate a national curriculum, nor would the same test need to be given nationwide, Ms. Cheney writes.

In Germany, for example, each state designs its own specific questions according to a format for the national Abitur examination.

A U.S. test "could be flexible and could allow for some kinds of specificity within states," said Mr. McGrath.

Mr. McGrath acknowledged that garnering nationwide consensus on the content and use of achievement tests may prove elusive. "To be sure, there's a big job ahead," he said.

But he called such tests "worthwhile" because "they provide everyone with some kind of measurement as to how well school systems are doing their job" as well as assessing the performance of teachers, states, and localities and how well students are learning.

But George Madaus, director of Boston College's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, cautioned that foreign test questions should not be studied out of the context in which they are used in that country.

"The primary pitfall," Mr. Madaus said, "is we just don't get the idea that this test is part of an overall system that has other key elements," such as inspectorates that track educator accountability, longer school years, and a culture different from our own.

In addition, Mr. Madaus said the design of any national achievement test in this country will depend greatly on how exactly it is to be used.

Many European tests, he noted, are not designed to measure educators' performance but are used solely to certify secondary students for college admission or vocational training.

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