THE MOST controversial part of President Bush's new "America 2000" education plan is the call for a national test. Although the test is supposed to be voluntary, the administration is urging colleges to consider the test results in admissions and employers to consider them when making hiring decisions.
This is very much like the president's "voluntary" national and community service proposals -- they're only "voluntary" if one doesn't want to go to college or have a job, a sort of "mandatory" voluntarism.
The test is supposed to be based on "national standards" to be set by a panel of administration officials and governors. In other words, this process could be placed in the hands of those who've been in leadership positions while American education has been going downhill. And this effort will be led by Lamar Alexander, the secretary of education, who, like most of our previous education secretaries, has never been a public school teacher, principal, superintendent or administrator.
The administration says that a national test is necessary because there are certain basic things students should know. The inevitable result, however, will be the virtually useless and misleading minimum competency tests already adopted by many states, including Maryland. Students passing these tests in order to graduate are only required to answer questions at the junior high school level of difficulty.
If the national test requires answers to questions above the junior-high difficulty, what subjects will be covered and on what basis? Will physics be part of the national test of science knowledge? If so, how much physics will all students be required to know? Furthermore, how would the national English test take into account the differences between liberal and conservative communities at the local level, where reading assignments vary greatly? A philosophically balanced test would be unfairly difficult for many students or it would force communities to adopt uniform curriculum and textbooks to prepare students for the test. The inevitable result would be the homogenization of education into a national curriculum.
What if a curriculum like the "new math" of the 1960s were used as the criterion for a national test in mathematics? Instead of only a few students' math education being fouled up, an entire generation could be adversely affected.
The fact of the matter is we already know what is wrong with American education and how to solve our problems, but we just aren't doing it. For example, research clearly indicates intensive phonics is the best way to teach reading, but only about 15 percent of our schools use this approach. Also, we know that homework is very important, but about 53 percent of our high schools have no policy requiring homework.
What is needed is not a national test, but rather a national investigation by Congress to determine why our schools aren't doing the job with educational tools we know are effective.
D. L. Cuddy has taught at the public school and university level and was employed by the U.S. Education Department during the Reagan administration.