President's Corner

National Testing ... Fight It Or Join It?

by Donald R. Thompson

The issue at hand is national testing. Recently, it regained top billing, since the President called for both national standards and testing in his State of the Union Address.

Normally, I would stand in favor of states’ rights and against federal intervention. I make an exception to this rule when the federal government must act in order to deal with foreign aggression.

In this case, the governments of other nations are making concerted efforts to better educate their young people for the global economy. Unfortunately, the United States has too often been reluctant or has lacked the motivation to make the educational and political changes needed to ensure a productive workforce for the future.

As a nation, if we don’t see the economic threat and do something about it educationally, we will likely get clobbered economically in the world marketplace. Time is wasting. We’d better get on with the task of effectively preparing all of our students, including the 60 percent in the middle of the bell curve.

Where does testing fit in? Currently, each state is dealing separately with standards and testing, and with varying levels of success. At best, this state-by-state approach to standards and testing is a fractured one. Students and parents, especially those who move frequently, find it difficult to know how well they stack up to "what" standards.

Students need, and many want, an individualized testing benchmark that will help compare their performance with world-class standards. Otherwise, how will they know early on whether they can compete in other states or nations?

Let me add a few caveats. First, we need to ensure that any testing information that is compared is actually comparable. Second, let’s be sure that when we set national standards and develop national tests, that we have a full-fledged commitment to garnering the resources needed to help students reach those standards and pass the tests. Third, we need to avoid punishing those who do less well because of their social and economic circumstances. They will need our help, not our scorn.

I believe the educational community should support a bipartisan effort to stimulate the development of tests that will enable parents and students to benchmark their performance in reading, for example, at the 4th and 8th grade levels with students across the nation and in other parts of the world. These tests could very well help students challenge themselves.

As we move toward national testing, a word of caution. These new national tests should be linked to the National Assessment for Educational Progress. More than 40 states have participated in NAEP testing, which provides state-by-state comparisons based upon samples of students. Any national tests would complement NAEP, and vice versa.

Anyone who know the territory will tell you that the quality of these tests must be high. Rushing them to meet a political deadline would be counterproductive.

Finally, in order to politically accomplish this effort, national tests must be voluntary at the state level, at least in the beginning. The voluntary aspect will also protect against measuring only what is taught. We need to keep in mind that states will need time to absorb these new national standards and test items into their testing procedures.

Consider the wisdom of joining the process and shaping it versus standing outside and criticizing it. The status quo is not good enough for a dynamic nation such as ours.

Donald Thompson is president of AASA.