A potentially far-reaching national battle over educational testing seems to be shaping up quietly.

Fortunately, both likely major candidates are on the same side of this complicated issue - the right side. But the issue is in danger of getting bogged down in conflicts among various education factions and other interest groups.Wisely, President George Bush and Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton agree that American education can and should be improved by developing better achievement tests in subjects like English, mathematics, science, history, geography, civics and the arts. These tests would be voluntary, neither written nor imposed by Washington. Given in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades, they would help ensure that American children learn the essentials needed to function effectively in today's world.

Specific tests have yet to be developed, and, at least initially, competing tests could emerge. First, it is necessary to establish precisely what knowledge and skills students should acquire. Scripps Howard News Service reports that several states, including California, Vermont and Kentucky, plus non-governmental groups, are already devising standards for particular subjects from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics set the pace, consulting a wide range of teachers and real-world users of mathematics before publishing norms for a good math education. The Bush administration is helping fund similar efforts in science, by the National Academy of Sciences, and in history, by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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The education summit of the 50 governors endorsed this approach, as has Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers. But opposition comes from a broad coalition.

Some educators say tests are misused and American children over-tested. Some civil rights, minority and feminist groups suspect all tests of being biased. Some conservatives fear the erosion of local control of schools. All these groups want Congress to forbid any federal spending on development of standards or tests.

Even without federal funding, many of the efforts now under way would continue. But the support of both presidential candidates is encouraging. Local control has not prevented the erosion of learning. Yet, as many minority parents know, a good education is crucial to personal improvement. It's also crucial to national progress.

But it's hard to improve individually or collectively without specific goals and uniform means for measuring progress or slippage. Let's get on with the effort to develop a better yardstick and apply it to America's schools.

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