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Assessments--Federal Style

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I went downstairs to the budget office last week to ask Jaya something. "She will be back this afternoon,'' I was told. "She had to go to San Francisco to take her test to become a naturalized citizen.''

That afternoon when I saw her, Jaya asked me if I wanted to know the questions that she had been asked. Since the federal government is considering urging states and others to develop performance-based assessments, I thought it would be interesting to see what the federal government itself uses to gauge achievement of national standards.

The government has never been known for examinations that test thinking processes. The selective-service exam comes to mind--but then, maybe we don't want our soldiers to think. Civil-service exams are another example, but there again, maybe the same explanation applies.

The questions on the test to become a citizen seemed to be divided into four categories: the Constitution, civics and government, American history and traditions, and the essence of democracy.

The question about the Constitution was, "How many amendments are there to the Constitution?''

"What a silly question,'' I said. "It doesn't test anything about what's in the Constitution.''

"How many amendments?'' Jaya asked again.

"Twenty-four,'' I answered.

"No, twenty-six,'' she corrected.

I tried to talk my way out of it. "Yes, but one of them canceled another, so there are really only ... ''

"Twenty-six,'' Jaya repeated. "One wrong. Next question: Who are the two senators from California?''

"Cranston and--I don't know the other guy.''

"John Seymour,'' she said.

"How am I supposed to know him? That's not fair. He was appointed, he's never run for office, he never says anything, and he hasn't been indicted yet.''

"Two wrong,'' said Jaya. "Next question: Red, white, and blue ... ''

"Oh, I know that one. The stars and stripes. The number of stars is ... ''

"No, no,'' Jaya said, "Red, white, and blue. What do the colors stand for?''

"How do I know? I've never heard of such a thing!''

"Do you give up?''

"No. Red is for--blood. White is for--'Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.' Blue is for--'From sea to shining sea.' '' I was rather proud of my improvisation.

Jaya said, "Wrong, wrong, and wrong. You fail! Red is for courage, white is for truth, blue is for justice.''

"That's nonsense,'' I sputtered. "Who made that up? White is truth? That's racist. Why is justice blue?''

"Here's the last question,'' she said. This was the question on democracy--the most important question of them all, a question that if you got wrong, even if you got every other question right, you would fail.

It was a "Yes/No'' question: "Are you a Communist?'' Finally, a question for which I knew the right answer.

It looks like the federal government has a long way to go in its own assessments before it starts pushing performance assessments on others.

P.S. Jaya passed.

Ralph Levine is the executive assistant for the Pew Forum on Education Reform at Stanford University. He is a citizen by birth, luckily.

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