A new education group chaired by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean yesterday proposed that all high school seniors be required to take a national examination of their knowledge and skills.

The proposal for a comprehensive system of national testing, which does not now exist, came as other groups have endorsed the idea as a way to measure progress on national education goals and to push schools to produce better results. The proponents have included a presidential advisory panel and the National Alliance for Business.

But the notion of a national test remains controversial among many educators, who fear it would undermine state and local control of schools by leading to a national curriculum. Other critics have argued against another standardized test by saying U.S. students already spend too much time taking multiple-choice tests that have limited educational value.

Whether the debate will lead to a national test may depend on governors, who as a group have appeared unwilling to relinquish state authority, and President Bush, who has not publicly addressed the subject.

Kean's nonprofit group, Educate America Inc., proposed that high school seniors each November spend nine hours taking tests in reading, writing, mathematics, history, geography and science. Graduation would not hinge on the results, but scores could be sent to prospective employers and colleges.

Many states already require high school students to pass basic skills tests, and nearly all college-bound students take the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the American College Testing program. But there is no single test required of all students.

Kean, now president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., said that such testing would "add meaning to that {high school} diploma . . . encourage student achievement and instill higher standards."

Average state and school results would be published, he said, to strengthen accountability for learning. National figures could be used to track progress on the national goals of improving student achievement and reaching universal literacy among adults.

Saul Cooperman, Educate America's president and New Jersey's education commissioner under Kean, urged Congress to mandate the testing and pay costs estimated at $90 million a year. A possible approach would be to mandate the testing in school districts that receive federal funding, as most do.

A spokesman described Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), the new chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, as being skeptical of a national test because of the cost, potential for teaching only those subjects covered by the examination and possible creation of a national curriculum.

Chester Finn, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Educate America board member, said a national test would "sort of" lead to a uniform curriculum, but he argued that one created partly by textbook publishers already exists. "We ought to acknowledge that we have a national curriculum that is doing us no good at all," he said.

The prospect of a national curriculum has been a sensitive one for a panel of governors and Bush administration officials charged with figuring out how to measure progress on national education goals. The panel, chaired by Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D), appears to be leaning toward adopting a single set of achievement standards that could be used to "calibrate" several tests. Those tests could then be adopted by regional groupings of states.

"We modestly think our proposal is a little better," said Cooperman, suggesting results of a single test would be more easily understood.

Bush's advisory panel on education policy also favors national testing in grades 4, 8 and 12. Kean is a member of that panel. So too is former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, Bush's nominee to be education secretary.