A.F.T. Decries Lack of Standards, 'Gateway' Exam
American students lag academically behind their European counterparts largely because they lack any real incentive to achieve and because schools have no benchmarks against which to measure student progress, a report by the American Federation of Teachers says.
Even average students in several industrialized Western European nations must rigorously prepare to pass a standardized exam that determines whether they will continue their education or what type of employment they might get, according to the report.
The 875,000-member teachers' union released the report, called "What Secondary Students Are Expected To Know: Gateway Exam Taken by Average-Achieving Students in France, Germany, and Scotland," at a news conference here last week.
The report compares the in~formation required to pass the United States' General Education Development test--used to award a high school-equivalency credential--with the questions posed on the European standardized exams, which generally are administered to students at a 9th- or 10th-grade level.
The comparison indicates that "our youngsters are literally years behind," Albert Shanker, the A.F.T.'s president, said at the news conference.
Mr. Shanker argued that the findings amplify the need to create national curriculum standards that would provide American students and teachers with clear guidelines for what students should be learning.
Such standards, he said, would renew prospective employers' confidence in the high school diploma as a benchmark of achievement.
Both the European and U.S. education systems in the postwar years faced the challenge of making education more accessible to more students, Mr. Shanker said.
But in the United States, he argued, the diploma, which once was a reliable indicator of student work habits and achievement, has become so devalued that it no longer serves that purpose.
"These other countries figured out ways of getting their students to meet these standards," Mr. Shanker said. "And we dumbed things down."
The report is the second in an A.F.T. series called "Defining World Class Standards." The first, called "What College-Bound Students Are Expected To Know About Biology," was released just over a year ago. (See Education Week, 5/25/94.)
Union officials said the new report was designed to correct the misperception that only an elite few foreign students are expected to meet high standards.
France, Germany, and Scotland were selected for the study because they are culturally similar to the United States. Japan, which is often cited as a counter-example to the weakness of the U.S. system, was not included in the study, Mr. Shanker said, because the Japanese culture is radically different from that of the United States.
Although each of the countries included in the report embraces a different approach to precollegiate education, one common advantage that allows students to achieve high academic standards is that teachers and pupils have clear goals set out for them.
"They have a clear notion as to what they want their students to do," Mr. Shanker said. "We do not have these building blocks."
Milton Goldberg, the senior vice president for education at the Wash~ington-based National Alliance for Business, an industry policy group, also attended the A.F.T. news conference. He and Mr. Shanker argued that the comparisons in the report point toward the need for a system of strong, national curriculum standards in the United States to prepare students to compete in a global economy.
The A.F.T. report, Mr. Goldberg said, "is an affirmation that all students need and can master a rigorous curriculum."