If 13 year olds from the United States take the same mathematics and science test as 13 year olds from England, Ireland, Spain, South Korea and four Canadian provinces, guess who comes in last?
And when young Americans (aged 18-24) compare their knowledge of geography with that of their peers from eight other countries, who do you suppose is ninth?
For years we have been warned of the poor performance of America's young people in mathematics, science, geography, languages and writing.
The faculty at the University of Rhode Island, dismayed at the poor writing ability of the average URI student, is seeking ways to correct the deficiency.
Hoping to do something about declining educational standards, the R.I. Board of Regents joined those of 25 other states in 1986 by adopting the National Teachers' Exam (NTE) as one criterion for teacher certification. In addition to having a degree in education, new applicants seeking certificatio to teach in R.I. public schools must pass three portions of the NTE - on communication skills, general knowledge and professional knowledge.
One in four Rhode Island applicants has been failing at least part of this test - most often the part on "communication skills." Among Blacks, Hispanics and persons whose native language is not English the failure rate is higher.
Admittedly, some of the questions on the NTE are difficult (and some may not be good questions). But persons who fail may re-take the portion(s) of the test they fail as often as necessary in order to pass.
Concerned about equal opportunity, the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1987 established a study commission to determine whether the NTE was biased against minorities.
The study commission's analysis "did not indicate specific items that could be characterized as obviously racially biased." And, the commission reported, a panel of Rhode Island teachers concluded that "the test items were valid as to the skills and knowledge needed by teachers." Nevertheless the commission concluded that the test "de facto systematically discriminates against the minority groups who are woefully under-represented in the (teaching) profession."
Accepting the commission's recommendation, the R.I. House of Representatives recently voted to suspend the NTE as a certification requirement for new teachers. If the Senate and the Governor now approve this move, the Department of Education will be barred from denying teacher certification just because an applicant fails the NTE - or any other standardized test.
This type of reaction is by no means peculiar to Rhode Island. When people do poorly on a test we tend to assume that the test is at fault.
For example, in 1987 the State of Maryland instituted a requirement that its high school students demonstrate the ability to write an essay before graduating. But many students failed. So this graduation requirement was put aside for two years. When the test was reinstated in 1989, students again failed. So again the requirement was postponed. No one will be denied a high school diploma in Maryland this year simply because he or she can't write.
Another test under attack is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) - often required for admission to college. Since young men tend to do better than young women on this test, the Center for Women's Policy Studies recently charged that the SAT is biased against women. The critics claim that several questions, such as one involving the word "mercenary" and another requiring a vague idea what "stamina" means, are unfair to women.
Neither the NTE nor any other existing test can measure all the talents needed by public school teachers. A good teacher must be skillful at handling groups of children. He or she must be able to motivate children to learn, must be able to deal with emergencies all day long and must be willing to work long hours at home after the school day.
But should we not also require a certain minimum level of general knowledge and communication ability?
Instead of eliminating the NTE, perhaps we should encourage future teachers to take the test at least a year before their graduation from teachers' college. Then they would have time to remediate any difficulties and retake the test if necessary before seeking teacher certification.
(Postscript: After the bill to grant provisional certification to candidates who fail the test passed the R. I. House in 1989, I opposed it in the Senate, where it failed. The following year the bill passed both the House and Senate, and I urged the Governor to veto it which he did. In 1991 it came back again. See next article.)