Representatives vote for annual tests despite growing protest movement. Jon Marcus reports
ALL American students aged nine to 14 are likely to face tests in maths and reading every year, in a move which could make national performance tests mandatory for the first time.
The House of Representatives decision, which now requires Senate approval, was made amid growing hostility to tests, which are being administered by some individual states.
Liberals said the tests are unfair to low-income and minority students. Conservatives said that education is a local issue and the national government shouldn't meddle in it.
"You do not improve education merely by giving tests," said Congressman Robert Scott, one of 119 out of the body's 210 Democrats who opposed the move.
Under the plan, annual tests would be administered by every state to measure performance in maths and reading in grades 3 to 8. Schools whose scores did not improve after a year would be eligible for increased government grants. If there was no change after three years, students could choose tutoring, transfers to other schools, or other options at federal expense.
"It's time to take our heads out of the sand and quit ignoring incompetence and quit ignoring that some of our kids, too many of them, are not learning," said John Boehner, the Republican chairman of the House Education Committee.
President Bush supports the test system, which is modelled on a programme in his home state of Texas. To get the measure passed, he reluctantly had to agree to let students in failing schools use federal funding for private tutoring, which he originally opposed. The president also opposes a proposal going before Congress to let states use teir share of federal money any way they want if student performance improves. The idea is being pushed by some of Mr Bush's conservative fellow Republicans.
Even as the congressional votes were being counted, tests were under fire in Texas and nationwide as more and more states begin relying on them to determine whether students can advance to the next grade, or graduate from high school. Fifteen states already test pupils every year in grades 3 to 8, while 35 others test every other year, or every third year.
Minorities in Texas have filed a lawsuit over the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, saying it discriminates against them and has caused an increase in numbers dropping out. Since the test was introduced 10 years ago, the number of pupils failing to graduate has risen by about 25,000 per year.
On the same day as the congressional debate, Eugene Paslov, the president of a Texas-based company that furnishes high-stakes standard tests to several states said tests alone should not be used to determine students' advance. The same argument is being used by teachers' unions and parents, who say a student's grades, creative talents, and other standards should be taken into account.
Universities have also weighed in, moving away from their dependence on standard tests in admissions decisions even after primary and secondary schools embrace them. The president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, called for an end to the use of standard tests in undergraduate university admission.
Following the defection of Senator James Jeffords to the Democrats, the Republicans have lost control of the Senate. But this is unlikely to affect the proposals on annual testing, which many Democrats support.