Conservatives Call for National Education Curriculum
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Ask high school students if they'd like to take another massive standardized test and they'll probably throw their calculators at you. Well, a lot of education watchers say that American students will never be able to compete with their overseas counterparts until they face a national curriculum and a national test.
NPR's Larry Abramson reports that mounting support for such a test is running into that immovable object - tradition.
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LARRY ABRAMSON: In France, they call the national exam the baccalaureate. Standing outside the Sorbonne in Paris, former student Gregory De Suliel(ph) says he didn't really liked taking Le Bac(ph). But he says without it, the French will be left with nothing but liberty and Fraternity.
Mr. GREGORY DE SULIEL (Student): Even if we are in the front door of the France as a country, we have the same diploma of the citizen of Paris, Paris citizen. So that's the good thing, so I get it.
ABRAMSON: Next door in France's sometimes rival, sometimes ally, Germany, university students like Lena Gizeis(ph) say you need to take the test known as the Abitur if you hope to wear a white collar at work.
Ms. LENA GIZEIS (Student): It's very important, I would say. In Germany to go to university you need the Abitur to start with. I mean, without an Abitur, you could work in a supermarket, that's it.
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ABRAMSON: And in the U.S., the country that once liberated nations like Korea, France, Germany and Japan, the country that routinely gets creamed by those nations in international comparisons on math and science, the U.S. still has a goulash of state tests despite this presidential admonition a decade ago.
President BILL CLINTON: Anybody who says that a country as big and diverse as ours can't possibly have national standards in the basics - I say from Maryland to Michigan to Montana, reading is reading, and math is math. No school board is in charge of algebra and no state legislature can't enact the laws of physics.
ABRAMSON: In 1997, President Clinton urged educators to pull up their suspenders and accept the inevitable, national standards, national tests. But his efforts may have actually rolled the testing ball backwards. Opponents of national testing and a national curriculum depicted Clinton's goal as a Washington power grab. No, just as only a hawk like President Nixon could go to China, only a true conservative can push national testing into the mainstream, someone like former Reagan administration official Chester Finn.
Mr. CHESTER FINN (President, The Fordham Foundation): Modern, grown-up countries have national standards in the 21st century for their education system. And the U.S. needs to do so, also.
ABRAMSON: Finn now heads the Fordham Foundation and he backs charter schools, school choice vouchers, all that conservative education stuff. Finn has helped set-off an avalanche of conservative support for national testing. The current policy under the No Child Left Behind Law lets states develop their own standards in tests. Finn says that encourages states to dumb down their tests so students will pass and states will keep getting federal dollars. A national test, he says, would put an end to such nonsense.
Mr. FINN: The federal government could back off from much of its process regulation and free up schools in states and districts if it had a clear, consistent, comparable set of standards and measures by which everybody would know how they're doing.
ABRAMSON: Now you might think that No Child Left Behind would ease the path to a national test because it says all kids must be tested, if only on the state level. But actually the law has hardened opposition. Take the claim by supporters of a national test that it would lead to égalité, I mean equality.
According to Neal McCluskey of the Libertarian Cato Institute, the only way to create equal opportunity is to let the poor do what the rich already do, choose which schools to attend.
Mr. NEAL MCCLUSKEY (Cato Institute): Once you have choice, those people are given the ability to lift themselves up and to close the gap themselves, not relying on political process which invariably leaves them behind. And that's the real importance of getting away from government-imposed standards.
ABRAMSON: No Child Left Behind has also given new energy to traditional opponents of big standardized tests. Monty Neill is with the anti-testing group, FairTest.
Mr. MONTY NEILL (Director, FairTest): The argument around a national test still accepts as premise as this notion that you can test your way to improved education. If that premise is flawed, then there's no particular reason to have a national test at all.
ABRAMSON: By some arguments, the U.S. has already knuckled under to testing mania. The SAT and the ACT are not only required for admission to many colleges and universities, states are starting to use them as exit exams from high schools. But despite the current affection for testing, the idea of a true national test still touches a nerve in some parts of the country like Iowa, where there's a strong tradition of local control of education.
Dan Van Gorp is on the Sheldon, Iowa, Community School Board. He says he can't accept the idea that kids have to march in lockstep to a national curriculum towards the same test.
Mr. DAN VAN GORP (President, Sheldon, Iowa Community School Board): I do believe that local teachers and local school board members are the best people to make those decisions because they understand those students and those issues in their district better than anybody else.
ABRAMSON: Supporters of a true national test may never get what they want in this country, but they'll always have options - they can always move to France.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.