The headlines are familiar: "U.S. flunks out in geography test." "Undergrads lack basic skills." "A rising tide of mediocrity." "U.S. students finish at bottom in math, science."
One in seven Americans cannot pick out the United States on a world map, 50 percent cannot locate England and 75 percent do not know where the Persian Gulf is. The average high school student reads at only eighth grade level - yet he or she has a "B" average. Colleges and universities are teaching remedial arithmetic and writing courses to many of their students. And employers complain that job applicants are not even prepared for entry-level positions without additional training. (One retailer uses the following employment-interview question: What is the sales tax on a $100 purchase?)
As the performance of high school graduates on the SAT declines, so do the standards set for admission by colleges. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, may have exaggerated slightly last year when he said that "ninety-five percent of the kids who go to college in the United States would not be admitted to college anywhere else in the world." (This would probably not be an exaggeration if he restricted the comparison to the "industrialized" world.)
No one seems to know exactly what the problem is.
Is it alcohol and other drugs, or too much television and partying, or parental indifference? Perhaps children have become so accustomed to having things done for them that they see no need to prepare for their own futures.
In elementary and secondary schools, teachers have to cope with greater numbers of disinterested or disruptive kids. And at the college level, students cut classes without explanation.
Among the various proposals for upgrading education standards is the concept of required accountability. Stop issuing meaningless diplomas, degrees and certificates.
About 15 states now require students to pass some sort of minimum-competency test before receiving a high school diploma. And 44 states require that prospective new teachers show a certain level of knowledge before being granted a teaching certificate.
Rhode Island became one of the 44 in 1986 when it adopted the NTE (National Teachers Examination) as a requirement for teacher-certification.
In Rhode Island 89 percent of the test takers met the requirement last year. But the NTE, like other tests, has come under attack. The Rhode Island legislature was told that minority candidates fail the test at a higher-than-average rate. So the test must be "racially biased."
A "Commission to Study Standardized Testing" was appointed, and it reported to the General Assembly in 1989. The commission could not find any items in the NTE that were "racially biased;" but it recommended that the NTE be discontinued anyway as a condition for teacher certification because of "the discrepancy between minority and majority performance."
So a bill was introduced in the General Assembly to ban the use of the NTE or "any standardized teachers examination" as a condition for certification.
Last year the bill actually. passed both the R.I. House and Senate. But it was courageously vetoed by Gov. DiPrete who expressed concern about sending "the wrong message to our students at a time when it is critical to foster the value of high academic standards."
No one, including the Educational Testing Service which produces it, suggests that the NTE or any other test measures all the qualities required of a good teacher. But surely it is not too much to ask that passing such a test be one requirement for a teaching certificate.
The NTE is given in three parts; and a candidate who fails part(s) of the test, can retake the part(s) failed again and again until he or she passes.
The laudable goal of increasing the number of minority teachers will not be met by eliminating this exam. The problem is that relatively few minorities go to college and among those who do, few are interested in teaching. At URI only about 3 percent of the education majors are minorities.
Last year only 16 minority people took the NTE in Rhode Island. Ten of them met the requirements for teacher certification. If the NTE had been eliminated, six more minorities and about 75 more white candidates would have been certified.
Rhode Island requires testing before certification as an auctioneer, audiologist, barber, cosmetician, dentist, dietary manager, electrician, embalmer, engineer, esthetician, hairdresser, lawyer, manicurist, marriage therapist, nurse, optometrist, pharmacist, physical therapist, physician, plumber, public accountant, speech pathologist, surveyor, truck driver, and more.
But this year the R.I. House has passed a bill to undo teacher testing; and a similar bill has passed the Senate.
It is hoped that Governor Sundluń will continue to recognize the importance of maintaining and improving educational standards and will veto any bill which would reverse what little progress Rhode Island is making.
(Postscript: Governor Sundlun signed the bill into law, and it is still the law in 2000.)