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A Failing Grade

By Noah I. Dauber

Yesterday's Financial Times headline said it all: "US students flunk test." Confirming what we already knew, but were afraid to admit, a recent international study of high school seniors found the math and science skills of the U.S. students to be among the worst of the nations participating in the survey. The Financial Times adds insult to injury, noting (in their U.S. edition only) that "the US only scored higher than three nations--Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa." These results offer us another opportunity to take a more serious look at President Clinton's plan for national standards in education.

In a strange act of mercy, the Financial Times doesn't tell you that the United States placed second to last in the advanced mathematics division of the exam. American students taking pre-calculus, calculus or Advanced Placement calculus scored 59 points below the international average, and only 6 points above Austria, the lowest scoring nation in the advanced division. William H. Schmidt, an educational statistician quoted in the New York Times gets the message across: "Even the very small percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses are not among the world's best."

We are underachievers. Even our smartest students are underachievers. But, before getting too far into this vein, I should add that there may be some room for quibbling. The age of the students varied from around 16, in Russia, to 21 in Iceland, if this makes anyone feel better. Naturally the Russians scored higher than we did in all the divisions anyway, so this caveat is not all that much of a consolation.

The real challenge, the American challenge, to this sort of thing has always been: Why should we care? We are the United States of America, home of the brave, land of the free. We enjoy unparalleled prosperity, we have a huge arsenal, and astounding civil liberties. Why should we accept an international benchmark for education? This is the jingoistic version of the challenge, but there is a moral ground to this argument as well. Who says that being good at science and math has anything to do with being a good citizen, or even a good person?

Some argue--we may call them the internationalists--that our freedoms and our quality of life depend on our competitive edge in the global economy. We cannot rest easy on a large internal market and plentiful national resources. The economy is increasingly global, and it requires us to keep pace. If our students fall behind, we will be unable to compete, our economy will sag, and we will be unable to afford the freedoms and services provided by the government.

Clearly, we need to take a middle course. We do not need to run after the other nations. There is no need to keep up with Joneses for keeping up with the Joneses' sake. Our educational mandates and challenges are different than those of other countries, and it would be a mistake to suddenly graft the educational system of the Netherlands--the highest scoring country--onto the United States. For instance, in many European countries, like France, Switzerland and Germany, students are tracked by vocational goals and projected ability at an early age. This is clearly not the right system for the United States.

By the same token, we ought not stick our heads in sand and refuse to learn from the study. This is a clear reminder, if not a wake-up call, that our educational program is not tip-top. President Clinton is rightly convinced that national standards are the way out of the current mess. At a New York City fundraiser in January, the President explained his reasoning: "We cannot pretend, if we have a truly progressive vision of the future, that we can ever achieve what we want to achieve unless we hold our children--all of our children--without regard to their race, their income or their background, to high standards of learning." Students should then be given "the support they need to meet those standards and measure whether they do or not, and if they don't, keep on working at it until they do."

There are essentially two arguments against Clinton's plan for national standards, and, combined, they have managed to keep his measures from passing in Congress. On the conservative side, members of Congress have argued that national standards and testing would be an illegal extension of federal powers into state and local territory. On the progressive side, minority Democrats have argued that such standards could damage the self-esteem of students. This last argument seems to be aimed mostly at Clinton's jabs against "social promotion," the practice of graduating students from grade to grade according to their age, even if they have not passed the required courses.

Both arguments seem relatively weak, considering the current state of education. The big question, it seems to me, is whether we want an educational system that will change the experience of America for millions of students. It is reasonable to assume that school life will be much more difficult for future students if Clinton's proposals go through. Students would have much more homework, a cottage industry of test prep courses and books would spring up along every suburban highway, students would have fewer free hours and far more responsibilities. For some number of students, the frustration of repeating grades until "they got it right" could be crushing.

This is tough love. Clinton promises "all the support they need," but we ought to be a little skeptical that he'll come through on that one. Minority Democrats have reason to expect a massive deficit in "support" for inner city constituencies. With social promotion ended, class sizes could swell enormously. All these worries aside, a little tough love might be a good idea. It would be a great injustice to raise expectations beyond our ability to help students meet the stated goals, but it would be a worse injustice not to do anything at all. For the next couple of years, let's try to make it into the average ranking of the countries. Then, maybe in a decade or so, we can worry about beating out the Netherlands.

Noah I. Dauber '98 a special concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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