Education Opinion

Do We Need a National Achievement Exam? Yes: To Measure Progress Toward National Goals

By Thomas H. Kean — January 18, 2017 5 min read
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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.

  • Accountability for schools and states. With results of the test made public, the $230 billion nationwide education enterprise at long last would be accountable for results. For the first time in history, a reliable, commonly accepted indicator of accountability would be available for every high school in America. Because the results could be compared across schools and states, decisionmakers at all levels could pinpoint where changes were necessary. Depending on the results of these objective indicators, schools could either celebrate success or focus resources where most needed.
  • 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.

  • Raised academic rigor. A mandatory national exam could help raise academic rigor and expectations for all students. While not a graduation requirement, it would assess what Andrew C. Porter of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research calls “hard content for all students.” That’s a sharp contrast with most state graduation tests, which assess “easy content for all students.” And placing the exam at the end of high school gives a resounding answer to the dreaded classroom question, “Will we have to know this for the test?” Yes, you will have to know it, not just for the test but for your life. All 12 years in school matter.
  • Clear results. The results would be understood by every American. And they would tell us so much more than Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, which are the most common and the most misused measure of our schools’ progress. First, not everyone takes the S.A.T., which is especially true of the non-college-bound. Second, the S.A.T. is a prospective test, used to assess the ability to perform college work and specifically designed to be unrelated to the curricula in our high schools. Doesn’t it make more sense to use a retrospective exam, focusing on achievement and performance, which can clearly assess what schools have taught and students have learned?
  • Quality assessment. If it’s true that testing drives curriculum and teaching, most of today’s testing methods are stuck in reverse. They focus on minimums and rely exclusively on simple multiple-choice questions, so it’s no wonder they lead to poor teaching practices and irrelevant curricula. It would be a mistake merely to heap one more such test on the pile. But we don’t have to settle for that. As the old television show, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” proclaimed, “We have the technology… we can rebuild.”
  • 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


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