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Pundits & Prose

The Testing Of American Education

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (Sep. 19) -- The Clintons took Chelsea to Stanford this week. The Bierbauers went to the PTA's "Back to School" night.

We know the gamut of back to school emotions since our protracted family runs from college grad to first grader. While the Clintons may be worried about separation anxiety, we're relieved our youngest eagerly climbs aboard the school bus.

"I don't want to miss the bus," he said tugging on his backback and chugging down the driveway this morning. He was fifteen minutes early!

If this enthusiasm lasts another dozen years, our anxieties will be greatly reduced. We can worry about now peripheral concerns such as standardized testing, federal standards, school vouchers, education tax credits and Goals 2000.

Actually, those are President Clinton's education policy concerns. He wants the credits and the tests and the goals, though not the vouchers.

But, Mr. President, those weren't high on the list of issues at our PTA meeting.

The "boundary committee" is hard at work trying to keep the school's geographical area intact. We live in a Maryland suburb where the county needs to shift some school boundaries to ease the overcrowded schools and fill the lean ones. One of the neighborhoods in our elementary school's area could be shifted to the next school. The boundary committee is entrenching to hold the line where it's been for many years.

The fund-raising committee is laying the plans to get computers in each classroom tied into the webworks of the world. We're pretty far ahead of the president's quest to cyberlink the nation's classrooms.

We're fortunate to have such an excellent public school. We pay for it, of course, willingly. We can see the results.

Our students take Maryland's standard tests in third and fifth grades. In 1995 -- the last results in -- they scored "excellent" in nine of 12 measures.

"We're focusing on the 'excellent' standard," the principal told us on Back to School night.

Our kids will also be assessed by the county school system's own measures which are being toughened each year. And though Maryland is one of seven states to have voluntarily agreed to the president's standardized national test for fourth and eighth graders, there isn't much enthusiasm for it at our school where the feeling is that they are already tested enough.

The president's plan to test America's kids for reading in fourth grade and math in eighth has become a political test here in Washington. For the most part Democrats want to do it, Republicans don't.

Figuring that out is as simple as A-B-C. It's as predictable as 2+2=4.

From the president's perspective, national tests are about American students becoming competitive.

"Educational excellence at world-class standards is now more important than ever," Clinton says.

From the Republican perspective, such tests would be an intrusion on state and local authority. Congressman Bill Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, is threatening to block funds for the testing.

"You don't fatten cattle by constantly putting them on the scale and weighing them," says Goodling, a former Pennsylvania school superintendent.

There's merit in that argument, though there's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of standardized testing. American students are already highly tested. Iowa tests. California tests. PSATs. SATs. And don't we regularly hear that American students scored higher or lower than Japanese, Hungarian and Finnish students on this, that or the other test?

Good schools know they are good schools. Weak schools should know they are weak schools, though they may not admit it.

Chelsea Clinton's admission to Stanford shows she and Sidwell Friends, one of Washington's premier private schools, did well. The Clintons did not need another test to confirm that.

The president got that message at the 1996 education summit in New York. There, the nation's governors and some business leaders sent a clear message that they, not the federal government, should set the pace. The president was welcome to come along, but he wasn't going to be class president, too.

As part of Goals 2000 the states were encouraged to set their own standards under national auspices and using federal funds. Some have. Some haven't.

The debate moves on several levels. Are such standards necessary? Who should set them? Should they be mandatory? Clinton's are voluntary. What should they measure? What's a passing grade?

It's hard to argue that reading and math will differ from state to state. Commerce and communication rely on some uniformity.

What's often overlooked is that there is already a federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It's a sampling, not a universal test. But it does calculate how states compare and how schools compare. Former education secretary William Bennett argues that the test mechanism the president is looking for may already exist in the NAEP test.

The prospect is that the issue of federally standardized nationwide tests for American school children will remain locked in politics. But note that the president's plan also draws criticism from liberal Democrats.

They feel the federal government, a minor contributor to education spending in the first place, could better put its millions into books and teachers and roofs for schools in the poorest communities. That might give those students a better chance of passing the tests that already exist.

The president does not have to look far to realize that. Washington's public schools will open next week. The three-week delay was ordered by a judge while the capital's school officials finished fixing the roofs that should have been repaired during the summer.

It may not be the kids who need a standardized test of proficiency.

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