New school testing takes the U.S. closer to 'Old Europe'
By Jonathan Zimmerman
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.
August 19, 2003
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 naiveté. Rather than simply drilling my
students in the required curriculum, I resolved, I would teach them how
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