A life ruined by one test on one day

August 26, 1996|By Richard Reeves

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Thousands upon thousands of young Scottish and British lives were destroyed here the other day. On August 16, A-level test results were posted and announced across all of Great Britain.

The teen-agers who passed the national test with the best grades will run the country 30 or 40 years from now. Almost all of those who passed with middling grades will earn middling money and have a lot less opportunity and power. But almost nine out of 10 do not pass.

The playing fields of Eton and the universities of Great Britain are designed to find and educate the elite -- and channel the rest into vocational schools or apprenticeships. Those who fail the examination and the two-thirds who never take it rarely rise above that single defeat on this one terrible day; most of the losers will be reading help-wanted pages for the rest of their days.

The British way of moving on to university life is cruel but seems relatively fair -- an objective search for a meritocracy. It is similar to seeking-out or weeding-out systems created in other relatively rich countries. The Baccalaureate test for 18-year-olds in France, which goes back to Napoleon, is one example. So is the German ''Abitur,'' or the Joint College Entrance Examination in Taiwan, where last year 125,000 high school graduates competed for 53,000 university places.

I happened to be in Taiwan during the tests last year. The buildings where students bent over their exams were surrounded by praying parents, some of them with umbrellas and chairs set up, feeding and fanning their children if they came outdoors into the heat during breaks in the day-long torture of the tests.

''Auto-didacts''

In France, when Pierre Bergegovoy became minister of economics in a cabinet under Francois Mitterrand a few years ago, the French press compiled lists of other ''auto-didacts,'' finding only a couple of dozen other ''self-taught'' Frenchmen and women who rose to power without having passed the ''Bac.''

The only developed country that does not use government higher-education tests to choose who goes where and who gets what, is, of course, the United States. Our College Board entrance examinations are only one part of a system so free, so flexible or so chaotic that most anyone can get to a college of some kind -- particularly if one can dunk a basketball or was wise enough to pick a dad and mom who can afford five-figure annual tuitions.

We do not pick all the winners and losers at an early age. Thank God and the churches that created the American way of higher education. American children are not tracked or trapped forever at the age of 18, or 16, or 14. It is the greatest thing about being an American.

Even though European and Asian public and private school systems give obvious and tremendous advantage to the children of the rich, who are educated in the best primary and secondary schools, the examination systems themselves are more egalitarian than the American process. But college admission in the United States is more free in terms of opportunity, if not finances. Higher education costs the chosen, the exam winners, very little in most developed countries. In America . . . well, you know.

Cost aside, the greatness of America is not the Horatio Alger freedom to succeed. It is the American freedom to fail -- to fail again and to try again. Neither education, nor the lack of it, condemns with finality a young man's or a woman's chance to rise above the station of school or family. In fact, most Americans don't care about what you did as a kid. (Years ago, my wife ran for secretary of state of California. During that long campaign, no one -- voter, reporter or opponents -- ever asked where she had gone to school or what she had studied.)

Most of the world's score-based systems do allow a second chance, but only a chance to retake the test, or even to take the tests forever. But that amounts to prolonging the agony, doing the same thing again and again on the same playing field. That field may be level, but it is usually a plateau. The tests, based on essay questions and usually graded by academics in other parts of the country, are more rigorous than anything in the United States. French secondary students who have passed the Bac are admitted as sophomores at some of America's highest-rated universities.

In Great Britain last week, a national debate was triggered by the fact that 1.7 percent more students passed than had last year. ''Are the tests becoming too easy? Or are our children becoming more clever'' were the questions raised in newspaper editorials and BBC interviews all last week. Perhaps they are. But you could never tell that from the strained faces and quick breathing of students looking for their names on school walls or inside plain brown envelopes being pulled from mailboxes. Their lives were on the line.

If students did not do well enough to be accepted by the universities of their choice, many of them, here and elsewhere, had only one other last big chance: America! If they could not make it here on this one test on one crucial day, they could go to universities or colleges in the U.S. -- if they could afford it. They could try again and again. It's not always pretty, but that's what America has been about for a very long time.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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