A Benchmark For Improving Schools

What's wrong with benchmarking? Everything, apparently, if it is used in our schools. The raging debate in Congress over President Clinton's plan to create two standardized math and reading exams pits Corporate America against fringe elements of the U.S. body politic. Congressional conservatives worry about a federal government takeover of local schools that would impose an alien curriculum on students, while liberal legislators fear testing will benefit suburban children to the detriment of city kids. This doesn't make any sense to chief executives who used benchmarking as a tool to revitalize American industry. CEOs such as IBM's Louis Gerstner are calling for the creation of voluntary standardized tests that parents anywhere in the country can use to see how their children measure up against national and international benchmarks. Chief executives within the Business Roundtable believe standardized tests can be a tool to improve employee skills for the Information Age. Republican and Democratic governors also welcome a chance to choose tests that allow them to evaluate their state's performance vis-a-vis other states.

Efforts to hold schools accountable across the country are stymied by a lack of comparable data. Each state is responsible for its own curriculum and its own testing. Standardized tests would simply gather data, establish a uniform baseline, and allow states and localities to make judgments about resource allocation. Nothing more.

To make it, Clinton should follow the advice of Governor John Engler (R-Mich.) and give the project to the independent National Assessment Governing Board. The NAGB should then develop two simple exams measuring basic math and reading skills by adopting one of many such tests already in use by the states. In the information era, pragmatism, not paranoia, should guide America's education.

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