Keith Geiger, head of the National Education Association, is against it. Joe Nathan of the University of Minnesota Center for School Change opposes it. Even Gregory Anrig of the Educational Testing Service doesn’t like it. With so many clamoring against a national achievement examination for high-school seniors, why do I support it?
Because we need a reliable way to measure our progress toward the national goals set by President Bush and the governors. Because employers need a lot more than the high school diploma to tell them what their applicants have learned. And because even as most indicators tell us that our schools are failing, America continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually on an enterprise that has little or no means of accounting for results.
It’s time to develop a national achievement exam, required for all students. Some educators may not agree, but three out of four Americans do. In a 1989 Gallup poll, 77 percent of respondents strongly supported requiring schools to use standardized national testing programs to measure what their students are learning.
Educate America, a group I chair, recently proposed a national achievement examination for all high-school seniors in public and nonpublic schools. The exam would measure outcomes in six areas: reading, writing, math, science, American and world history, and geography. Individual scores (on a 0-200 scale in each area) would be mailed to students and their parents, as well as colleges and potential employers designated by the students. School-by-school and state-by-state averages would be published, allowing educators and policymakers to focus attention on clear, unambiguous, easy-to-understand results.
At least five reasons compel us to pursue a national exam:
- Accountability for students. Students not bound for college have little incentive to work hard in school. They know that prospective employers are likely to ask only for a diploma, and in many schools, that sheepskin is more a proof of attendance than a mark of achievement. But what if students were told that Employer K would be looking at how much math they have learned, or Employer L how well they can construct a paragraph?
A national exam with clear, easily understandable results would have a much more direct impact on job opportunities. It would create an effort-oriented system with a clear message that hard work pays dividends and that tough courses are the path to success. A large part of our efforts nationwide must be to bring that kind of challenging curriculum to all students, particularly those now tracked into dull and watered-down courses.
If, for instance, New Jersey schools were excelling in science instruction but were at the bottom of the barrel in geography or history, its voters would know. And for the millions of parents who acknowledge that American education needs fixing but think their own school is just fine, this exam would finally reveal that there are problems in Hometown High. Sure, perhaps the mathematics department is topflight and the “math olympics” team makes local headlines and wins awards, but maybe the English program is unacceptably weak. And what about the sciences? With a national test, at last we would know.
Educate America’s proposal would use state-of-the-art assessment practices and performance measures, including multi-step problems, essays to determine writing performance, open-ended questions that require critical thinking, and passages from literature to measure the ability to read, comprehend, and infer. No doubt, this exam would be more expensive than fill-in-the-dot tests, but economies of scale would keep the cost down to $30 per student, or about $90 million nationwide. That’s about 4 cents for every $100 being spent on education in America.
America’s school system isn’t working. I salute President Bush and the governors for pledging to make it work by setting ambitious goals for the decade. But we will wander toward those goals like the ancient Israelites in the desert unless we have milestones to mark our progress and provide direction. Without that 4-cent commitment, without a mandatory national exam of one sort or another, the promised land of American educational excellence could be another 40 years.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 1991 edition of Education Week