COLLEGE-BOUND students in America should take examinations which evaluate their mastery of history and other classroom humanities subjects rather than tests which measure their aptitude for further learning, says a report released yesterday by the National Endowment of the Humanities.
"National Tests: What Other Countries Expect their Children to Know" examines national achievement tests given to high school seniors in England, France, Germany, Japan and the European Community and compares them to the verbal sections of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) taken by many Americans seeking college admission. The report supports U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander's call for voluntary national exams in English, math, science, history and geography in an effort to improve American standards of education.
According to the samples included in the NEH report, college readiness tests in other industrialized countries require most students to write essays. And all are required to demonstrate their knowledge of the cultures and histories of other nations as well as their own.
NEH director Lynne Cheney says the United States is the only country where college admissions tests do not measure students' mastery of factual knowledge. Most Americans take the multiple choice SAT test, used mostly on the East and West coasts, or the American College Test, usually administered in the Midwest and Southern states.
"This [college admission test] is the most important test that most kids take, and it tells them that what they learn in school doesn't matter because they aren't going to be tested on it," Cheney says. "These tests send the wrong message through the education system."
The NEH report gives an example of a typical question from the verbal part of the SAT examination:
"Select the lettered pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair:
YAWN: BOREDOM: (A) dream: sleep (B) anger: madness (C) smile: amusement (D) face: expression (E) impatience: rebellion."
"It's an amazing thing to try to explain to people in other countries that the SAT tests Americans not on what they've learned, and not exactly on aptitude," the chairman says. "When you try to pin down exactly what the SAT tests, I think it mainly tests the ability to take the SAT."
The report includes sample national tests with the following questions:
From Germany: "Both the American and French revolutions were world historical events. Choose one of the two and discuss its significance.
From France: Write an essay on "What does one gain by losing one's illusions?" or "Can one say 'To each his own truth?'"
One Japanese national examination requires students to be able to identify such European thinkers as Euclid, Ptolemy, Bacon, Newton and Locke.
British students were asked to write an essay arguing whether Woodrow Wilson was "unbelievably naive" or "a dogged man of principle."
"Those types of questions are so thought provoking," Cheney says. "And they encourage not only picking up and storing knowledge, but also learning how to use it."
Critics of a national achievement test say educators should come up with their own standards of excellence rather than relying upon an examination to "jump start" reform, as Gregory Anrig, president of Educational Testing Service, puts it.
Some fear that a model based on foreign tests, developed to serve more centralized education systems, might harm the diversity of American schools. Others worry the tests would reflect on school systems rather than on students.
"My feeling about this emphasis on national tests and testing is that it loses the focus on individual children and their learning needs," says Ralph Fessler, director of the division of education in Johns Hopkins University's School of Continuing Studies.
"Too often the testing is done for the purpose of making judgments about the system. We ought to use testing to see where children are and to set goals about where we'd like them to be."
The College Board, a non-profit national education association which sponsors the SAT, is redesigning the 2 1/2 -hour test. It took its present multiple choice form in 1926 in response to the growing diversity of high school curriculums. Roughly 1 million high school seniors take the SAT each year.
The test includes sections on critical reading, word relationships and arithmetic, algebra and geometry. The new SAT test in 1994 will eliminate the section on antonyms, lengthen the reading section and leave a certain percentage of math questions open-ended so that students must compute answers, rather than select them by multiple choice. Another voluntary test, SAT II: Subject Tests, would include an essay.
The College Board's Advanced Placement Program examinations, available in 15 different fields, are the only achievement-oriented tests for students entering college which are roughly equivalent to tests offered in other countries, according to the NEH report.