NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

National Standards And Testing

May 11, 2001

President Bush's education plan would condition receipt of federal education funds on states' setting "clear, measurable goals focused on basic skills and essential knowledge," and instituting annual testing to determine students' progress toward those goals. This would amount to de facto federal standards for education, say some critics -- not very different from the Clinton Administration's Goals 2000 proposal, with its National Education Standards and Improvement Council.

Uniform standards have been a goal in American education for 150 years, says writer Sheldon Richman.

  • The movement begun in Massachusetts in the 1830s to establish comprehensive government schools, known as common schools, was an effort to standardize the academic, civic and moral educational experiences of all children.
  • Throughout the 19th century there were de facto national standards because of the similarity of textbooks and other materials, says education historian Diane Ravitch in "National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide" (Brookings Institution, 1995), "and they even had an implicit consensus about performance standards, with a broadly shared scale that ranged from A to F or 100 to 60. "
  • Efforts were made toward consistency in high school curricula -- notably, the Committee of 10 set up by the National Education Association in 1892, which recommended a uniform curriculum for both college-bound and non-college-bound students.
  • And the need of high schools to equip students to pass the knowledge-based tests of the College Entrance Examination Board generated de facto national standards.

But critics complained testing led to "cramming." In the 1920s testing for specific knowledge gave way to general intelligence tests. The Scholastic Aptitude Test replaced tests on academic subjects as a college entrance requirement. And high schools' general course of study gave way to multiple courses, electives and student tracking.

Finally, in 1965 the federal government created de jure national standards by requiring the states to administer achievement tests to "disadvantaged" students.

Source: Sheldon Richman, "Parent Power: Why National Standards Won't Improve Education," Policy Analysis No. 396, April 26, 2001, Cato Institute, 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001, (202)842-0200.

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