Measuring an education

How do you define an educated student?

In the late 1980s, educator E.D. Hirsch raised a ruckus when he published "Cultural Literacy." The book-length list of the facts he considered important - Who is Samuel Clemens? What's Manifest Destiny? - drew fire for everything from elitism to glorifying rote learning. It also gained enthusiasts who asked: "What good are thinking skills if you don't have much to think about?"

Facts vs. skills. The debate over improving student performance has sometimes seemed polarized between the two - as if they were incompatible. But a decade and notebookful of wrenching reforms later, both have gained ground.

Thanks in part to international competition, most Americans have jettisoned the notion that we're educating students well enough. The consensus is that students need to do better - and that tests can ensure they do. Most states test reading and math skills. Nineteen states now require tests for student promotion or graduation.

Turn to Gail Russell Chaddock's story on Page 17 and you'll find questions from the new Mas- sachusetts tests, the results of which are just out. The focus is achievement, so facts are key. But a test-taker won't find a sea of "bubbles" to fill in. Students must write essays and show they have certain skills - but ones that can be learned in various ways.

Large numbers of the fourth-, eighth-, and tenth-graders who took it fared poorly, sending the state on a public-relations campaign to persuade citizens to stay the course of change. They should - encouraged by evidence that many tests, like improved curricula, have definitely improved.

* E-mail comments to Learning editor at newcomba@csps.com

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