WASHINGTON. — Never has the nation been safer from foreign menaces, and never before has the nation been graduating students less well-educated than those of the immediately preceding generation. These facts warrant this conclusion: Today the principal threat to America is America's public-education establishment.
It tenaciously opposes national testing of primary and secondary school students. As Chester Finn of Vanderbilt says in his indispensable new book, ''We Must Take Charge,'' the education establishment knows that testing would shatter the public's complacency and bring demands for accountability.
Sixty-three percent of those ages 18 to 24 cannot find France on an unlabeled map (fewer than half find New York); 60 percent of 11th-graders do not know why The Federalist papers were written; 94 percent of 11th-graders cannot compute simple interest; in tests comparing their math and science skills with those of five foreign countries and four Canadian provinces, American 13-year-olds finish last; New York Telephone finds that 115,000 of 117,000 applicants flunk its employment exam; 80 percent of applicants flunk Motorola's exam seeking levels of 7th-grade English and 5th-grade math. Every American employer knows it is possible -- indeed, common -- for high-school graduates to be functionally illiterate.
National testing would be a lever for moving the entire world of education. Measurable standards for cognitive learning would shape curricula and teacher education, and would provide criteria for pay differentials among teachers, and for declaring the educational bankruptcy of some schools.
Some conservatives are afraid national tests would further institutionalize the political ideology of the education establishment. Testing might be an occasion for indoctrination through politicized questioning. Furthermore, say conservatives, any movement toward a more national curriculum would make possible continent-wide mistakes.
Momentum toward national testing, and all that it entails, was imparted by the 1989 ''education summit'' with the president and all 50 governors at the University of Virginia -- Mr. Jefferson's university. Any permeation of education by national standards does involve another departure from Jeffersonian impulses, toward those of his rival, Hamilton, that apostle of centralization and national, rather than local, consciousness.
However, many conservatives, like most Americans, are alarmed enough to put aside their traditional preference for educational localism. National testing is necessary for acquiring information about educational results that can galvanize and guide reform. Anyway, localism makes less and less sense in a nation of increasing mobility among regions, a nation flunking -- as a nation -- the international test of competitiveness.
The parlous condition of public education was the foremost domestic concern voiced by voters in 1990 Election Day exit polls. More than 70 percent of Americans (the figure is higher among parents) support standardized national testing, including a national high-school graduation exam, keyed to a national curriculum.
Conservatives' qualms about national tests should be assuaged the ferocity of the education establishment's opposition to such tests. That establishment wants to preserve America's unwarranted sense of well-being that is based on lax or tendentious assessments of cognitive learning. Most Americans like the illusion of living in Lake Wobegon, where ''all the children are above average.''
It is no coincidence that the philosophy and interests of the education establishment coincide exactly. Testing is ''judgmental'' and hence jars the educators' warm, ''caring,'' empathetic, ''child-centered'' therapeutic ethic that nurtures ''self-esteem.'' This produces today's toxic mixture of low expectations and grade inflation.
Testing would make possible a result-oriented assessment of education, would end today's practice of gauging the quality of education by the amount of money spent on it. Testing is necessary for a system of accountability -- clearly stated goals, accurate information about progress toward them and positive and negative consequences of the information.
Thus, Mr. Finn says, national testing is a first step toward transforming America from a culture of lassitude back into a culture of achievement:
''When it comes to consumer information about outcomes, the American educational system has been engaged in a massive cover-up. If the Securities and Exchange Commission allowed publicly traded corporations to conceal this much data about their profits and losses, we'd have a crisis of investor confidence -- and a lot of ruinous investments.''
He notes that few people think doctors should autonomously set health policy. Everyone knows war is too important to be left to soldiers. It is time for ''civilian'' control of education, the largest item in every state's budget -- a $230 billion enterprise at the primary and secondary levels.
Education is second only, and not by much, to defense as the nation's most expensive common provision. National testing is a step toward facing this fact: The safer the world becomes militarily, the less prepared America is to prosper in it, because knowledge matters more as military prowess matters less.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.