FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Three years after he signed a landmark education law that strengthened oversight of elementary and middle schools, President Bush on Wednesday called for a mandatory battery of reading and math tests in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades.
He also proposed $1.5 billion in federal aid for high schools.
Bush's high school initiative fulfills a pledge from his reelection campaign to build on the No Child Left Behind law, even though the bipartisan coalition that helped him enact the measure in his first term has weakened amid controversy over its funding and implementation.
The president's allies acknowledge his education agenda is likely to face tough questions in the new Congress, with some conservative Republicans among the skeptics. Bush's new plan also could be hurt by an embarrassment the Education Department suffered last week with the revelation that it had paid $240,000 to conservative television commentator Armstrong Williams to promote No Child Left Behind. The payment drew ridicule from the left and the right and spurred calls for independent investigations into whether the agreement with Williams violated laws prohibiting the use of government funds for propaganda.
Bush made no mention of the controversy in an appearance at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va., a Washington suburb. And he clearly relished the chance to discuss an issue he had championed as governor of Texas and in his first presidential term: school accountability.
"We're leaving behind the old attitude that it's OK for some students just to be shuffled through the system," Bush told students, parents, educators and political officials in a school gymnasium. "That's not OK."
Bush cited statistics showing that only two-thirds of ninth graders finish high school within four years. He also lamented that American 15-year-olds ranked 27th out of 39 nationalities in an international math exam.
"I don't know about you, but I want to be ranked first in the world, not 27th," Bush said. "I view the results in our high school as a warning, and a call to action. And I believe the federal government has a role to play."
Under Bush's plan, the federal testing requirement for high school would triple, to three years, from the current one year.
Bush's $1.5-billion proposal, which expands on many ideas he put forward at his renominating convention in September, included:
* A new $500-million federal merit-pay fund for teachers who excel in low-income schools.
* An increase to $200 million, from the current annual fund of $25 million, for a remedial reading program for teenagers.
* $250 million to help states pay for new testing.
* $269 million for mathematics and science instruction.
* $52 million to help develop Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs in low-income schools.
* $45 million for incentives to help students take more rigorous courses.
The funding, which would be a small fraction of total federal education spending, is expected to be included in Bush's fiscal 2006 budget, to be unveiled next month. That fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Still unknown is how much overall the president would propose for education spending. As the administration confronts record budget deficits, Bush's budget is expected to stress belt-tightening.
It also was unclear how much of the president's spending initiative represented new money and how much was repackaging of current programs.
Democrats questioned whether the administration could be trusted on education funding, saying that Bush had fallen several billion dollars short of full funding for the No Child Left Behind law. In the current fiscal year, the law authorized $20.5 billion for spending targeted to low-income and disadvantaged children. But Congress appropriated about $12.7 billion; such spending gaps are not uncommon.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who teamed with Bush to pass No Child Left Behind, gave a cautious appraisal of the president's initiative.
"I welcome the president's remarks today on improving our high schools," Kennedy told reporters in Washington, "but it's clear that unless we fund the reforms under the No Child Left Behind Act for earlier grades and younger children, what we do in high school will matter far less."
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Assn., a teachers union that has been critical of No Child Left Behind, said Wednesday: "We think that [Bush's proposal] is premature. Schools, school boards and state legislatures already have problems right now" applying the No Child Left Behind law to elementary and middle schools.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who was part of Bush's audience, hedged on embracing the president's proposal. "I'm all for it," Allen said, "but I want to make sure it doesn't harm what we've been doing in Virginia" high schools.
Bush warmed up his crowd with a joke at his own expense. He talked about how his wife, Laura, attended Southern Methodist University in Texas at the same time as a teacher at the high school, Stuart Singer.
"I asked him if they ever went to the bar together," Bush said. "Both of them said no, they were in the library. It probably distinguishes their college career from mine."