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Making the Grade

New school testing takes the U.S. closer to 'Old Europe'

August 19, 2003|Jonathan Zimmerman | Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.

Twenty years ago this fall, I joined the Peace Corps. Posted as an English teacher in Nepal, I arrived with a characteristic American blend of zeal and naivete. Rather than simply drilling my students in the required curriculum, I resolved, I would teach them how to think.

Yet whenever I introduced a game or a song -- or anything outside of the official course of study -- the students bridled. "Sir," they complained, "this is not on the SLC."

The SLC was the School Leaving Certificate examination, which all Nepalese had to pass to qualify for higher education and lucrative government jobs. Although Nepal was never colonized by the West, its school system closely resembled neighboring India and other former imperial outposts. To get anywhere in life, you had to get past the SLC.

My Peace Corps friends and I often commiserated about the evils of the test. It made students anxious; it encouraged rote instruction; it fostered cheating. As I wrote in a letter home, the SLC was "the worst educational legacy that Europe gave to the world."

Little did I know that the U.S. would embrace this legacy two decades later. At last count, 24 U.S. states require or plan to require that students pass exit exams to earn high school diplomas. Under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, meanwhile, states will have to administer annual tests in six elementary and junior high grades. In our schools, the U.S. is becoming more like Donald Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" than many of us care to admit.

Remember Old Europe? For the most part, Bush and Rumsfeld would prefer that you forgot it. On issues from arms control and the environment to the World Court and the war in Iraq, the White House has repeatedly flouted or ignored our putative allies across the Atlantic.

When it comes to education, however, the U.S. has moved in a remarkably European direction. Bush and his followers have demanded public vouchers for parochial schools, a mainstay of many European democracies for a century. Most of all, though, both the federal government and the states are requiring new high-stakes tests that put Old Europe to shame.

Consider two children, one who grows up in Massachusetts and another in Britain. Already, to graduate from high school, the Massachusetts student must pass the English and math portions of the state's school-leaving test. Starting with the 2005-06 school year, federal law will require her to take reading and math exams every year from third grade through eighth. Her school will have to report its annual results; if it does not show sufficient improvement, she will become eligible to transfer elsewhere.

The British student, by contrast, will have to take exams only three times: at ages 7, 11 and 14. The first set of tests is graded within each school, and the results are kept private; the second set is marked by external reviewers, with the results still private. Only the third exam, also graded externally, is reported to the public. The worst-performing schools then face a variety of sanctions, including the replacement of their staffs.

Defenders of high-stakes testing in the U.S. might point out that Massachusetts devises its own tests, whereas Britain administers a single nationwide exam. True enough. But other European countries allow more local flexibility. In Germany, for example, state education ministries write their own questions for the national exam that qualifies students for university.

Still other countries differentiate their examinations according to academic disciplines. All French candidates for higher education take the same national test in core subjects, but they also choose additional exams in an area of concentration: liberal arts, social sciences and so on.

Given our history of local control in education, it's hard to imagine the U.S. requiring a single national test. But our desire to require high school leaving tests -- no matter who writes them -- has already eroded a distinctive American educational tradition, bringing us closer to the European model.

That's not necessarily a bad development. For too long, many American schools have operated with low standards, or with no standards at all. If we craft the new exams with care and act upon their results, the tests might spur student learning. Or, as I saw in Nepal, they might simply spawn more corruption, cynicism and rote instruction.

For good or ill, though, the new education reforms will make us more like other countries, especially European ones. Even as we turn our noses up at the rest of the world, our schools are starting to emulate it.

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