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Testing Failure
July 11, 2001

Recently, a group of American 8th graders joined 24,000 students from South Korea, Spain, Ireland, and Britain for an international math competition. As a prelude to the 63-question exam, they were asked "Are you good at math?" In the self-esteem Olympics, American students lapped the field with a full two-thirds claiming competence. But when it came to solving math problems, our kids scored dead last.

This isn't the only test where American students aren't making the grade. Half our high school seniors don't recognize Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death," 80% of American 4th graders don't know the significance of Gettysburg, and 40% of our 3rd graders read below basic levels.

Since the fire bell in the night rung by "A Nation at Risk," a generation of students has slouched through our failing schools. We've had education presidents and blue ribbon commissions, whole language and new math. But Johnny still can't read -- much less do long division.

The teachers unions claim the problem is under-funding or under-staffing. Not so. The trouble is federal overreach, and if President Bush has his way, the bureaucratic tentacles will only tighten.

In 1980, '84, '88, '92, and '96, the Republican Party said that the Department of Education should be abolished. But now the GOP moves with haste to hack that plank from their platform in the name of leaving no child behind. While conservatives watch from the sidelines, a Republican President is advancing a level of federal intrusion - mandatory national testing -- never contemplated by the Democrats. After all, Bill Clinton's testing scheme, condemned by John Ashcroft for "dooming" local control, was at least voluntary.

Education Secretary Rod Paige says "anyone who opposes annual testing of children is an apologist for a broken system of education," and congressional Republicans are scampering to escape the scourge. The $41.8 billion Senate bill and $24 billion House bill passed resoundingly and now await reconciliation. The question is not how far Leviathan will reach, but how much care and feeding will cost.

Effective next year, states will be required to test third through eighth graders, but as long as the feds sign off, locals can write the tests (If you missed it, that was the nod to local control.) After a school flunks three times, students score federal dollars for private tutoring. Five years of failing marks and a charter school takes over. If schools refuse to play along, they lose all federal funding.

Comes the problem: Saddled with this huge unfunded mandate, local boards unable to develop and administer tests of their own design will likely resort to national defaults. Teaching national tests - because that's what teachers do when they want to keep their jobs -- will require national curriculum. National curriculum will require more staff at the Department of Education. More staff will require more spending. No wonder Ted Kennedy likes this bill.

The White House translates liberal aisle-crossing as universal acclaim, but it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have broken faith with their philosophy. The Left applauds Mr. Bush's campaign to become national school superintendent because his agenda mirrors their own - the trespass of federal power on ground never granted it by the Constitution.

Liberals know that national testing does nothing to improve education, impart character or develop skills. It merely tells us what we already know -- that our children are not learning. But the process of proving it consolidates Washington's power and in so doing justifies a federal fix. Democrats could not have dreamed better, and courtesy of a Republican Administration, they have their wish.

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