SHOULD the US federal government develop a national test to be taken by all public school students? Many of Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander's top advisors believe such a test would lead to a significant improvement of US schools. A high-level national test would improve the accountability of school systems and even individual schools, they say, and, if properly developed, offer a high standard for students - something often missing today.
The national test idea is developing a head of steam in Washington, through President Bush's ``America 2000'' education strategy, and more specifically through a distinguished interim council on standards that includes governors, representatives, senators, and business and education heavyweights.
Last week Congress got on board when a House subcommittee voted to appropriate $1 million for the council to determine whether a national test is feasible, and if so, to decide how it should be administered and designed. Creating a national test from scratch will take 3 to 5 years.
Which gets back to the question of whether a test is needed.
The answer, maddeningly, is both yes and no. Much depends on how the test is designed. The White House wisely supports the idea of national testing on a voluntary, not a mandatory, basis. That should always be the condition for any such test. Any effort to, say, tie federal funds to the use of the test (and such talk can be heard) should be firmly rejected. Local control of schools is a must.
On the other hand, a set of fair, comprehensive, serious tests taken at various grade levels might well work against the mediocrity ingrained in too many local schools. The National Endowment for the Humanities last month published with little comment an eye-opening set of history questions asked graduating seniors in Germany, England, France, and Japan. These are rich, detailed essay questions, not multiple choice, requiring analysis of events, character, and cause and effect - aspects of history far o utside the purview of most US students. True, only 40 percent of overseas students take the exams. But US students ought to at least see such questions once in a while. Why argue a lowest common denominator approach, as some do?
Significant concerns and problems exist: Who grades an essay test? Are the logistics involved surmountable? Will a national test homogenize learning? Can differences over content - crucial curricular value questions - be resolved? (Maybe both E.D. Hirsch and Spike Lee should design it.) Should a test cover math and science only, not humanities?
A national test sold by politicians as a fix-it-all way to improve schools isn't desirable. A challenging exam, or exams, offered on a voluntary basis might help.