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How is Johnny doing?

By William Buckley (Published September 19, 1997)

The defeat in the House last week of the White House proposal to encourage a national testing program brought out the worst at both ends of the political spectrum. Chester Finn of the Hudson Institute put it nicely when he said the conservatives are opposed to any program that has the word "national" in it, and the left opposes any "test."

At school age, I and my family and a few others were taught privately at a makeshift school (much easier to do, at early years, than popularly supposed).  But even then (in the 1930s) children in Connecticut could not be exempted from public schooling unless they submitted to a "test" after the first experimental year.

That test was instrumented by the Calvert School in Baltimore. How was this?  As simple as that over the years the Calvert "system" of teaching language, mathematics and history had become something of a standard. Subscriptions to Calvert were inexpensive, and entitled the schoolteacher to send in occasional essays or tests for grade-age validation. These tests, once certified and validated, were sent to the Connecticut educational department, which issued a license to the little private school to continue another year.

The idea of national testing (originally a Republican proposal, by the way) is self-evidently a good idea. The parents of the children in the little school in Twin Forks, Ind., are obviously interested to know what kind of progress their children are making but can't measure relative progress without help.

The design of the national testing service is to give exercises in reading to children completing the fourth grade and in mathematics to those completing eighth grade. On the basis of how the children in Twin Forks make out, the parents have an idea how successfully they are being taught compared to children in Indianapolis, Seattle and Greenwich, Conn.

Come now the objections. A black congresswoman from California testified that such tests would validate what everyone suspects and some know: that the achievements by inner-city students are well below the national median. And everybody knows, she says, that such students are predominantly black or Hispanic. Why put an official stamp on the delinquency of delinquents, when that stamp is not therapeutic in nature?

It's one thing to test everybody to see who has malaria and then send malaria medicine to those who have the disease. But since no plan is contemplated to rectify deficiencies, why simply brand them as such, in the style of the Scarlet Letter?

The rejoinder is obvious, namely that where schools are retrograde, community pressure to make changes is stimulated. It can't reasonably be expected to remedy the situation by asking mothers to procreate brighter students. But it can reasonably be expected that where students are backward, special focus should be given to teaching methods, to academic discipline and to study hours.

The conservatives, or at least many conservatives, are saying that there is danger in encouraging the federal arm to get involved in any way in education.  One speaker testified that what would surely come next is precisely the recipe for reform. Establish that Twin Forks doesn't do well in reading, and before you know it the Department of Education will be prescribing for Twin Forks look-say reading methods that will permanently injure the child.

That argument (the old slippery-slope argument -- give the government an inch and it will take a mile) is bouncing about with grave effect in the eternal war on school vouchers. They are opposed by some conservatives on the grounds that the moment public money is spent at school, you will be inviting in a brigade of federal Procrusteanizers who will choke down real learning with multicultural gook, slowly eroding the authority the community should have over its own schools.

The point is not frivolous, though it comes much too late. With the advent of the civil-rights laws came school busing. The colleges, almost all of them in some way beholden to the government, need to abide by court rulings, the Virginia Military Institute being the most merciless example.

Now the proposed law would give any school district the right to decline to administer the test, which would seem to extend the protection Twin Forks might want. The cost of the program is negligible, by the standard of comparable federal exercises. And it is true that there are the equivalent of Calverts around by which schools that want to take measurements can go ahead and do so (there is a National Assessment of Educational Progress program, 28 years old).

The pity here is that the contemplated tests are not proffered by the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. This giant oligopoly -- the two teachers' unions -- control U.S. education and are responsible for its strengths and horrible weaknesses. Why do they not volunteer to assess their own work?