Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a national education exam to measure student achievement. Nor does the United States have a national curriculum that might drive state-, district- or school-level exams. As a result, state-by-state comparisons of education performance are extremely difficult.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam offers the best opportunity to gauge — and compare over time — what American students know and can do, in a variety of subject areas. NAEP is a voluntary exam and is designed to be a representative sample of the nation as a whole and of each participating state. The assessment has been conducted since 1969 and tests 4th, 8th and 12th grade students in several subjects, although not all are tested at all grade levels each year. In 2000, 41 states participated in the NAEP reading and math exams. Approximately 9,000 4th grade students took the 2000 reading test, and 47,000 students in grades 4, 8 and 12 participated in the mathematics exam.
The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is another assessment that provides a national picture of student performance. In 1999, TIMSS-R (or repeat) included 38 countries, including the United States, as well as 13 states and 14 school districts or consortia. The exam was administered to a representative sample of approximately 3,500 students in the 8th grade from each country. In 1999, states and districts participating in the "benchmark study" were able to compare their scores against national and international results.
The NAEP exam most closely resembles a national assessment and does provide valuable information on student achievement, but it offers only a "snapshot" of education in America. A national exam taken by nearly all students would allow for ongoing comparisons across states, districts and schools. Since the NAEP exam assesses a sample of students and the tests are voluntary, state-by-state comparisons and comprehensive trend data are limited.
Proposals to institute a national education exam — voluntary or mandated — surface periodically, accompanied by many of the same arguments for and against them. Proponents argue that a national exam is necessary to provide comparative data over time to help track and improve student performance. Opponents are concerned about several issues, including the intrusion of the federal government into education, which has traditionally (and to a large degree constitutionally) been the domain of states and local communities. More specifically:
Supporters of a national exam argue that it would:
Opponents of a national exam argue that it would:
- Improve accountability and achievement through a common measure of student, school and state performance
- Provide a mechanism to track and analyze education progress over time
- Provide comparable data about performance at the school, district and state levels
- Raise standards and expectations for all students.
A national education exam was reconsidered in the early 1990s when a congressionally
mandated panel, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, recommended
such an assessment system. The panel rejected a single national test, but suggested
states collaborate to create assessments that would be judged according to national
standards. During this time, several other efforts were under way to explore or
develop national assessments and standards, including those by the National Center
on Education and the Economy, the governing board for NAEP and the National Education
Goals Panel. This renewed activity was prompted by a growing concern about student
performance and the lack of reliable, comparable information on education progress.
The movement, however, lost steam due to overall opposition and lack of consensus
on various aspects of a national exam.
- Lead to a national curriculum, or at least strongly influence local and state curricula
- Undermine state and local control over education
- Add an additional layer of testing and costs to the existing state and local exams
- Unfairly compare schools and districts
- Leave decisions about the skills and knowledge to measure in the hands of a few experts.
The development of state education standards and performance assessments, as well as efforts to increase the value of the NAEP exams, seem to have curtailed interest in a national education exam. Discussions about some form of national assessments, however, will most likely recur because of the cyclical nature of education policy.