WASHINGTON -- Marking an important shift in U.S. education, a high-level advisory panel is calling for creation of voluntary national standards for what schoolchildren ought to know and a system of tests to determine what they have mastered.
The recommendations, which appear in a report to be released later this month, represent a rare consensus among Bush administration officials, education-minded governors, congressional leaders, teacher unions and other education groups. And they suggest that in its drive to improve the schools, education may be moving away from the decentralization of policy and curriculum that has always been its hallmark.
The congressionally appointed National Council for Education Standards and Testing urges the creation of a federally financed successor agency to advance the idea of national standards and tests. The new agency should help develop the standards and tests and certify them, the council's report recommends.
The panel left unresolved some hotly controversial issues, and the effort to create a national system could easily fail, members acknowledged. Yet the report is a milestone: For the first time, a general agreement has been reached on the idea of using such standards and tests to spur improvement by school systems and individual students.
"The major power structures in American education have now agreed on this idea," said Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington. "That's never happened before."
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime advocate of national standards, said, "That all these people could agree is some sort of miracle."
The panel members said such standards would not be an effort to set a national curriculum, something that has long been anathema to educators. Rather, their goal is to describe the core knowledge that students in subject areas need to be taught.
In science, for example, the standard might prescribe that students have a basic understanding of the biological functions of plant and animal structures.
The report calls for a system of tests to judge the performance of individual students and others to judge how well larger groups of students are performing.
Though the tests are intended to be voluntary, states and school districts could feel considerable pressure to administer them if their results were used as a basis for such things as scholarships, college admissions or hiring.
"Once you've got them, schools will feel compelled to use them for competitive reasons," Representative Bill Goodling, R-Pa., a panel member and former school superintendent and principal, said of the proposed tests.
Mr. Shanker said it might take five to 10 years to work out a system of tests and standards that is technically and politically acceptable. He argued that such a system would help teachers by prescribing the essentials of a curriculum and would give students the incentives and penalties to make them perform.
"Kids in high school, like adults, are not going to work hard unless there's something in it for them," he said.
National standards and tests were advocated in the reform plan unveiled by President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in April, and the White House is expected to endorse the panel's recommendations.
As the proposals are debated, opposition is likely from those who fear that the standards and tests would be unfair to disabled and underprivileged students.
In addition, some teachers are wary that the results of such tests might be used to guide decisions on salaries and promotions.