In February of 1997, when Bill Clinton made national school standards and testing a centerpiece of his second-term domestic program, it became one of the biggest applause lines of his State of the Union address. What could be more self-evident for a nation convinced that its schools, if not actually failing, were running a poor second (or third, or tenth) behind Japan, behind Singapore, behind Taiwan, behind Korea--and that if something weren't done, our economic competitors, with better-educated people and more highly skilled workers, would beat our brains out [see "Are U.S. Students Behind?" page 641? Tests geared to national norms--or better yet, world standards--would inform parents about how well, or how badly, their kids were really doing. No more Lake Wobegon effect; no more false optimism from local school administrators trying to look good.
Nonetheless, no one should be surprised that Clinton's proposal for voluntary national tests--reading in the fourth grade and math in the eighth--is now in deep trouble. Only seven states have committed themselves to the President's testing program, and even some of them are said to be having second thoughts. More important, Congress, pressed by both the left and right, has put a moratorium on further federal spending for national testing and blocked any field trials of the tests until at least this fall. Congress has also commissioned the National Research Council to study the possibility of creating a device that would permit the scores on the standardized tests now used in many states and school districts to be equated into a single score, thus obviating the need for any new national tests. And it has wrested to itself the power to authorize any testing program. National testing, said House Appropriations chairman Robert L. Livingston last November, has been stopped "in its tracks."
For Clinton--and for Al Gore, who might have to run on, and live with, the consequences of Clinton's program--that could be a blessing in disguise, not only because of the technical and ideological booby traps buried in the actual testing proposal and the bitter political and pedagogical fights it will generate if the tests are ever given, but because of the broader national ambivalence about tough academic demands against which those problems will resonate. Do we really want a system that is demanding, meritocratic, and characterized by high expectations in such things as college admission for students, pay for teachers, and promotions for administrators? Or would we prefer an egalitarian system of perpetual second chances and endless opportunity for all comers? We pay great lip service to standards. We become far more timid and divided when they stare us in the face.
TOUGH STANDARDS, TOUGH CONSEQUENCES
When Clinton's testing proposal ran into trouble, Chester Finn, who was assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, remarked that the right doesn't like anything with the word "national" and the left doesn't like anything with the word "testing." But in fact, similar battles are being waged in the states, both over testing programs and standards and over consequences. As the late Al Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, used to point out, having tough academic standards without consequences is pretty meaningless. Yet real consequences for children are not something Americans are very comfortable with. It is one of the glories of the American system that higher education is so widely accessible. But this very accessibility will also forever undermine the institution of really tough school standards--if the standards for advancement and acceptance are raised, a post-high school education might no longer be so accessible. What's more, higher standards could have a demotivating effect on a significant portion of the school-going population.
Dozens of states--from New York to Colorado, from Florida and Wisconsin to Texas and California--have been trying to upgrade their own standards, often in conjunction with new tests. …