Wednesday, September 2, 2009

We need a Standardized Exam to Test all US Graduating High School Students


The United States has a problem with primary and secondary education. We are not giving our children the education they need to become well rounded, educated, sophisticated citizens. The key reason for this is a complete lack of national standards. Our children lag far behind those of the rest of the world.

The Washington Post reported “The scores from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment showed that U.S. 15-year-olds trailed their peers from many industrialized countries. The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world's richest countries. The U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries.”

This data puts us in the bottom 50% of the world’s wealthy nations. How can people claim that the United States is the best country on earth when our education and health care is second rate, at least when compared to other wealthy nations? One very important obstacle to improving education standards in the US has been the lack of a federal mandate. Education in the United States is handled generally on the county level. This will not change in the near future nor should it. This is a time honored tradition of local, hands on democracy.

The only way to create a national education standard while maintaining local control of schools is too create a separate, extra-official national examination that creates a benchmark for all students in the US. This examination will have no “official” status. It will simply measure, with one examination, all students in the US and give institutions of higher education and employers an excellent evaluation tool. It will also give the Federal government a method to directly affect the curriculum of primary and secondary students.

The exam will cover ten disciplines:

1. Mathematics- Basic math, geometry, algebra, and statistics.
2. Biology- Cell Biology, Evolution, Botany, Diffusion, Osmosis and Homeostasis.
3. Chemistry/Physics-classification of matter, chemical shorthand, structure of atoms and compounds, the mole, chemical reactions, solids, liquids, and gases. Gravity, electricity and magnetism, light, big bang, systems of particles and rigid bodies.
4. World History- From antiquity through the end of the 20th century.
5. American History- American History, including the Constitution.
6. English expression- English grammar and vocabulary.
7. Drama & Literature- History of world literature, drama, poetry and film.
8. History of Art & Music- History of art and music, special attention to American genres.
9. Philosophy and Religion- History of world’s religions and major philosophical/psychological movements.
10. Foreign Language- One foreign language of student’s choice.


The above descriptions are broad outlines. The topics to be covered on each of the ten exams must be developed by a team of experts in each field, picking the most relevant, current and useful topics to focus on. Each of the ten topics will have a two hour exam. Each year, at the end of the academic year, the test will be given at all high schools in the country. Every graduating high school senior will take the test at the same time. It will be given during one week, two exams a day, one in the morning and the second in the afternoon.

An important issue with an exam like this is how to give it relevance. The most important way will be to make it part of the selection process for all Federal jobs. Anyone wishing to work for the Federal government and eventually for State and local governments will be required to have a minimum score on the test. Also, 10,000 scholarships will be given a year. These scholarships will go to the top 10,000 scores on the exam and be worth up to $50,000 each. To win the scholarship the student must have a high school diploma or equivalent, and be accepted to an accredited university. Also, to win a scholarship, a student must have a passing grade in the exam, which means 70% or higher in each topic. The scholarships will be for full tuition, fees, room and board and a monthly stipend. The top 2,500 students will also receive an extra $20,000 scholarship to study one year abroad, if after three years they are still in good standing with their university.

The entire project, which might be called American Education Exam, (AEE) will be funded by a one percent tax on US advertising spend. US ad spend is approximately 150 billion dollars, which would give the project about $1.5 billion a year of budget. If more is needed, the percent of tax on ad spend could be raised. But at this rate, the scholarships would be covered plus $1 billion for administration, development, research etc. It will be very important for the exam to become a cultural event, much like the World Series or Super bowl. The hype it receives (best overall score, best math score etc.) will not only promote studying and academic values, it will increase the relevance of the exam for employers and administrators of institutions of higher learning.

The amount of data that the exam will produce should provide educators with a very clear vision of what they are doing right and wrong. Best practices can be identified, studied and repeated in low performing schools. A school’s score on the test (average score from pupils that took exam) should also become a source of community pride. This exam will demand from students a broad knowledge. There will be no curves or extra points. A score will mean exactly the same for whomever it is given. If local educators believe an extra year or two is necessary to prepare students for the exam, so be it. Let imaginations run wild, home schools, private schools, public schools, satellite schools or no school at all. We will have one, national education standard that will measure one’s knowledge. This is not the SAT, this is how much you know, how well read you are, how well you know where we came from and how we got here.

No doubt the curriculum of the exam will cause great debates about what is and isn’t relevant. This will be a good debate for all of us; a healthy intellectual exercise that all will enjoy and hopefully learn from. It is time to set the bar, and set it very high. Then let American ingenuity figure out how to reach it. By significantly increasing the quality of our education, we will improve the quality and level of our cultural, professional and civic lives, and make our Republic a better one.

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