It is a grueling time for students in Ireland. It's time for the "leaven certs." This annual event decides the fates of many students. The results can mean access to a college education and to occupations in the Republic of Ireland. The results can also mean another year of high school and another pressure-packed chance to do well enough on the national examination to get into university.
Perhaps it is time to look at the possible effects and side effects of a national examination proposed by President Bush with support from some business groups. Recent encouragement for a national exam has come from the National Endowment for the Humanities in a report entitled "National Tests: What Other Countries Expect Their Students to Know."It is easy to see in the report that other nations set very high standards for high school graduates. The examinations are not multiple guess aptitude instruments but require understanding, synthesis and evaluation of important information. The tests require written essays, and there are frequently sections taken orally along with demonstration sections in the arts.
It is easy to accept the point made by the National Endowment for the Humanities that such a test would raise the certified competency of students in the United States. An example is the history section of these foreign tests. It is clear that these foreign students are being tested on U.S. history concepts that many U.S. students would find baffling. For example, students in Great Britain are asked to "assess the extent and significance of opposition to western expansion in the United States in the pre-Civil War period." English students must also answer the question "Why, and with what consequences, did the Supreme Court involve itself after 1950 in either a) electoral apportionment or b) civil rights?"
Though it is easy to make a case that educated U.S students should also be able to answer these questions, it is also easy to see that there is some potential for unwanted side effects.
In Ireland the Leaving Certificate examination is the only path to the university for traditional students. As a result, families will often hire tutors to work with students for a year prior to the examination. Students call these tutoring sessions grinders, and most of the grinders sessions consist of reviewing past examinations. It is the same activity that occupies much of the last year of high school. For some students, then, the last year of high school consists of studying past tests to prepare for the one test that will set their course for life.
Educators in Ireland recognize the very stressful environment that the Leaving Certificates have created. There are proposals to consider school grades, class rank, aptitude test scores and teacher evaluations for university selection. These are things we already do in the United States. It may be a bit ironic that we are considering a national examination at a time when some people abroad are trying to lessen the emphasis on a national examination.
It may be that we are all looking for a middle ground. It may also be that the national test is a valuable tool only if used carefully.
Probably as important as deciding to have some national examination in the United States is the debate that should take place about how such an examination would and would not be used. High on my personal list would be the caution "do not use any test as the sole criteria for admission to further education or employment." In addition, I would suggest that we balk at any testing program that does not allow school districts wide autonomy in developing a curriculum. Most importantly we should not let tests run our kids or our schools.
The call for a national examination by the Endowment for the Humanities is sensitive to these concerns. It is up to the public to decide if the proposal is sensitive enough. Probably the first step for patrons of the schools and educators is to request a copy of the report, if for no other reason that to read sample tests from other countries.
"National Tests: What Other Countries Expect Their Students to Know" is available from the National Endowment for the Humanities, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20506