A National Test We Don't Need

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By Margaret Spellings
Saturday, June 9, 2007

A quiet revolution of accountability is sweeping public education. We're measuring students annually, breaking down scores by student group, and insisting that all children be taught to achieve at grade level or better.

A new study by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, revealing improved student performance and a narrowing achievement gap across most of the country, shows that we're on the right track.

But while test scores are up, has the academic bar been raised? An Education Department report released this week found that state standards for reading and math assessments were generally lower than those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, also known as the Nation's Report Card). In most cases, the knowledge required to reach the "proficient" level on state tests was comparable to the "basic" level on NAEP. Other studies have echoed these findings.

This may fuel a Beltway-based movement for "national standards" and a national test created and mandated by the federal government. Such a move would be unprecedented and unwise.

National standards are not synonymous with higher standards -- in fact, they'd threaten to lower the academic bar. And they would do little to address the persistent achievement gap.

Why do I believe this approach is wrong?

First, it goes against more than two centuries of American educational tradition. Under the Constitution, states and localities have the primary leadership role in public education. They design the curriculum and pay 90 percent of the bills. Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away.

The proper role of the Education Department is in helping states, districts and schools collect data to drive good decision making. Information is our stock in trade. President Teddy Roosevelt understood this when he called on the federal government to provide "the fullest, most accurate [and] most helpful information" about the "best educational systems."

States that have shown true leadership, such as Arkansas and Massachusetts, can inspire others to act.

Second, the debate over national standards would become an exercise in lowest-common-denominator politics. We've seen it before, most recently during the divisive fight over national history standards in the 1990s.

The landmark 1983 report " A Nation at Risk" called for "standardized tests of achievement . . . as part of a nationwide (but not federal) system of state and local standardized tests" to stem the rising tide of mediocrity in our schools.

Rather than top-down mandates, we are encouraging a race to the top.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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