WASHINGTON — Educators call it the "Lake Wobegon syndrome," a reference to Garrison Keillor's imagined homeland, where "all of the children are above average."
Most American parents are being told by local schools that their children rank "above average" in both reading and math. Yet according to a national education survey released this weekend, 62 percent of fourth-graders have trouble reading and only 20 percent of eighth-graders have ever faced an algebraic equation.
This dichotomy is at the heart of what's shaping up as a high-stakes battle over who sets the standard for achievement in American education.
The White House says that national tests are needed to give parents a clear idea of how their children and local schools stack up against national and international competition.
"In many countries, such as Japan, 100 percent of eighth-graders take algebra. We've got to close the 'algebra gap' or our international competitors will move ahead of us," Secretary of Education Richard Riley said last month. His department has begun developing voluntary tests for fourth-graders in reading and eighth-graders in math, which would be introduced in 1999.
Critics say such national tests will undermine local control of education and force school boards to adjust their curriculum to the demands of the test. They also charge the tests may put minority students at a disadvantage.
When the House reconvenes Sept. 3, Republicans say that they will try to scuttle the plan. New federal tests are "a waste of the taxpayers money," says Rep. William Goodling (R) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Education Committee. He proposes blocking further spending on national tests until there has been congressional debate and authorization
Yet six states and 15 major school districts have signed on to the federal test initiative, which is expected to cost $90 million to $100 million a year. Education officials say there will be no loss of federal funding to states or districts that decline to participate. The initiative also has the backing of numerous business groups as well as the American Federation of Teachers, who argue that the nation cannot remain competitive without higher, more uniform expectations of students.
Good news, bad news
Since the landmark 1983 "Nation at Risk" study that set off a nationwide reform effort, American math and science scores have improved slightly, reading is about the same, and writing is in a small but consistent pattern of decline. That's the message from the most recent round of national tests, released on Aug. 30.
Many parents are not hearing the bad news. Only a sample of the nation's students actually take these national tests, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and individual student or school rankings in this survey are kept confidential.
Most parents hear that their children are meeting state standards of proficiency in reading and math. What they don't realize is that those standards are often well below national or international norms.
"States and school districts have their own testing programs in reading and math, and there is a fair amount of agreement over what children should know. But there are big differences in what constitutes good enough," says Mike Cohen, the president's special adviser on education.
"For example, there are some half-dozen states where less than a third of students sampled [on the NAEP assessment] meet the minimal level of proficiency for eighth-grade math. But the states' own tests say that at least 80 percent of students are meeting state standards," he adds.
"All 50 states and 89 percent of school districts rate their students as above average. We need a system of testing that provides parents and teachers with good information about how their children are doing in a consistent way," adds Gary Phillips, executive director of the Department of Education and head of the voluntary test effort.
Administration officials expect that student scores on a high-standards national test will alarm many parents. In fact, they're counting on parents' outrage over how poorly their children perform to spur calls for more demanding courses in local schools. Only 20 percent of American eighth-graders take algebra, compared with 100 percent in other industrialized nations. "We need to take a very hard look at the quality of our curriculum nationwide. Students can't learn algebra if they're not given the opportunity to learn it," said Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall Smith on Aug. 29.
"It's going to perhaps embarrass some kids in the beginning. We hope to set it up so that they aren't embarrassed ... that in effect who's embarrassed is the school board, the superintendent, and the teachers in situations where algebra could have been offered and wasn't," Mr. Smith said during the first public meeting in February on the department's strategy for developing new national tests (for the full text of the meeting see www.ed.gov/nationaltests).
The public supports the idea of national standards and tests. Two out of 3 surveyed said that national tests would improve student achievement "a great deal or quite a lot," while 59 percent said they backed the president's proposal, according to a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll released Aug. 26.
But if too many students fail new national tests, that support could quickly sour, analysts say. "The reason we don't yet have a national test is that we are a diverse democracy and it's not clear we can live politically with the results of a high-standards test," says Anthony Carnevale, a vice president at the Educational Testing Service, the nation's largest testing group, in Princeton, N.J.
"Tests create a powerful accountability. The only governor who wins is the one whose state comes in first. Tests also put pressure on politicians and community leaders to deliver. Our current system of testing gives false comfort to parents that their children are competing well when they are not," he says.
What about minorities?
Civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) already oppose new national tests, arguing that standardized tests could hurt poor and minority children, who could be held back or segregated in lower-achieving classes because of poor individual scores.
"It is both discriminatory and unwise to treat large segments of the population as nonpersons by failing to recognize reading proficiency of young children in languages other than English," said the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, which recently launched a case in North Carolina challenging the use of standardized tests to keep children back in class.
Conservatives, including former Bush administration officials who once supported national tests, also oppose the Clinton plan, arguing that the administration is stacking the panel that is writing new tests to favor controversial methods of teaching, such as "whole language" reading or "fuzzy math."
"Local control of education is already a sensitive issue for conservatives, who are wary of federal intrusion in this area. But when you get into too many controversial areas, such as fuzzy math, which values how you approach the problem rather than whether you got the right answer, you lose respect," says Paul Anir of the Washington-based lobby group Empower America.
"You cannot have a national test without a national consensus on education, and such a high- stakes test deserves a full national debate," he adds.
On Aug. 30, in bid to defuse such criticism, President Clinton proposed that the tests be developed by an independent and bipartisan board - the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) - not the Education Department. "I intend to do whatever is necessary to move forward," he said.