Business leaders told Congress that all high school students should be required to take a national competency examination to ensure they have adequate skills for the working world, but Education Department officials reject the idea.

At a House Education and Labor Committee hearing Tuesday, four business leaders testified that America's competitiveness is being jeopardized by a generation of children leaving high school without a firm grasp of basic skills.For many years, business organizations have sensed that there is a growing problem with the level of competencies in entry-level workers. "Now we know from research data, surveys and individual companies that the problem is real," said William Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business.

"America cannot be competitive," said Sol Hurwitz, president of the Committee for Economic Development, "unless we succeed in educating all of our children to their highest capacity. But when we look at the new generation growing up, we're worried that they won't measure up."

To establish confidence in student achievement, Kolberg said all students by the age of 16 should be able to pass a national competency examination.

"The establishment of a system of national standards, coupled with assessment, would ensure that every student leaves compulsory school with a demonstrated ability to read, write, compute and perform at world-class levels in general school subjects," Kolberg said.

"Students should also have exhibited a capacity to learn, think, work effectively alone and in groups and solve problems."

Hurwritz generally agreed that competency exams are necessary, but said extra help must be given to disadvantaged students early so that they would be on equal footing with the more privileged students by the time they all are in high school.

Assistant Education Secretary Christopher Cross said in an interview, that competency tests are fine, as long as they are handled by the states, not the federal government.

"One single exam is not practical or appropriate," Cross said. "We have a tradition of local control concerning education. Competency exams are fine, but they should be handled at the state level."

One year ago, President Bush and the nation's governors developed several national education goals to be met by the year 2000. But Kolberg and his business colleagues indicated frustration with progress to date on those goals.

"We are disturbed that the national goals are not yet well understood and that their importance has not been communicated. There is no systemic and well-understood plan for achieving the goals," Kolberg said.

"We need a clear national strategy for addressing education reform, and we are concerned that over time, ad hoc institutions not grounded in law may not be sufficient to provide the proactive national leadership that we believe is necessary," he said.