American children won't notice, but the public schools they return to this fall lack something important: a reliable, uniform means of assessing how well they're doing their job.
Erasing that lack is what President Clinton has in mind when he calls for national tests, at the fourth and eighth grades, to assess students' performance in reading and math. The Department of Education has hastened the response to that call, letting a $13 million contract for development of such tests.
Administration planners hope the tests will be ready by 1999. Though use of the exams will be voluntary, it's assumed most school districts will participate. Opting out might be tacit admission that the local schools don't measure up.
But the administration's time frame could run into problems. The move to institute voluntary national tests faces opposition from a number of directions. Some Republicans in Congress hope to block any funding for test development. They are concerned about federal intervention in local school decisionmaking, and worry that a national test, even if voluntary, is a step toward a federally set curriculum. They are distrustful of anything conceived by the federal education bureaucracy.
On the other side of the political spectrum are liberal critics who see standardized tests as inherently unfair to ethnic and cultural minorities. There are already efforts, for instance, to have the math, and even the reading, tests administered in Spanish as well as English.
Countering these arguments is the need to bring a degree of consistency and accountability to American education. The slowly progressing move toward national standards, and the related effort to develop uniform testing, address this need. Such steps have strong backing from business leaders, who rely on public schools to produce workers who, at the least, have a solid grasp of reading and math. Many big-city educational leaders are squarely behind national standards and tests, too, seeing them as a way of raising community involvement and student performance in their often-blighted school systems.
There are, of course, various ways of taking these steps. Some education analysts say the approach being taken by the administration, having the Education Department guide the development of the tests through its contract with an alliance of publishers and education groups, will heighten the chances of political and bureaucratic manipulation.
Why not simply expand the already existing - and highly respected - National Assessment of Educational Progress testing program? Currently, that program is restricted by law to sample testing that can be used to compare educational performance among the states. The Department of Education has announced that its tests will, in fact, be based on the NAEP model.
No matter how carefully conceived, and no matter how focused on the fundamentals of reading and math, the tests are likely to generate controversy. Both fields have deep philosophical divides, between new math and old math, whole language and phonics. The debate should, however, be much less heated than the eruption over proposed national history standards a few years ago.
For the sake of America's students, the political and philosophical hurdles have to be cleared. Reliable national tests won't in themselves rebuild public education, but they're an important foundation stone. Secretary of Education Richard Riley has it right: "Raising expectations and standards in education motivates students to learn more and work harder. For the first time, the tests will inform parents, teachers, and students themselves about what it takes to reach national and even international standards of achievement in this great country - something no other test currently does."