During the past several centuries, each generation of workers has been better educated than their parents. This knowledge progress has fueled economic growth by allowing business to use brain power more and muscle power less.

The result? Increased productivity, higher wages and rising standards of living.This cycle has stopped in the United States.

American productivity gains have slowed, wages have dropped steadily over the past 20 years (counting inflation's effects) and the nation's standard of living is on the verge of dropping - even in two-income families.

An important reason for this reversal is that American educational excellence has not continued to improve. When compared to other industrialized nations, U.S. education performance has declined.

A great deal is being done to upgrade school performance in this country and eventually we will get back on the improvement track. In the meantime, American business has a problem - there is no accurate gauge of what a new worker knows or doesn't know. A high school diploma just doesn't mean much anymore; a 16-year-old high school dropout is even more of a mystery to potential employers.

For this reason, the National Alliance of Business and other organizations endorse the notion of establishing a standard of performance for reading, writing, computing and reasoning and then awarding a Certificate of Initial Mastery to 16-year-old students who demonstrate they can meet the standard.

We believe that 16-year-olds who can't meet the standard should be offered additional education - if necessary, in alternative educational environments - so they can meet it. We should require that kids stay in school until they learn, not until they reach age 16.

Such a system would provide proof that new workers are proficient enough to take on good jobs that pay good wages. By establishing a uniform standard of learning, employers throughout the nation would have this confidence regardless of where our increasingly mobile work force happens to be educated.

The education standard we adopt should, of course, be competitive with other nations. Our workers must be among the finest if we expect our businesses to be as efficient as our international competitors, many of whom have national educational assessments.

Although we advocate a national standard of performance and a common assessment system, we also believe that the system should be administered locally, not nationally.

Some people fear assessment systems will be used to compare schools, or school districts, and that teachers will therefore "teach to the test" rather than teach on a broader basis.

We agree that this would introduce undue pressure on teachers and administrators to certify a student who has not truly met the standard. Accordingly, we are against using this assessment for comparisons.

Once students have earned their certificates, they should have choices. They might stop going to school and enter the work force; they might enter a technical school or an apprenticeship program, further enhancing their value to employers. They might stay in high school and then go on to college.

The national assessment system would qualify non-college-bound students - that's 70 percent of our work force and the core of our commercial competitiveness.

We believe a national assessment system would be student-based, not school-based; it would determine whether individual students have achieved a specific standard of learning; it would keep our nation abreast of other nations. It would assure our kids that their education is on a world-class standard.

Finally, employers would know new employees meet high standards of performance.