Students in Germany may be asked on a national test to describe the role and significance of Robespierre in the French Revolution, while American students choose pairs of words with the same relationship as "yawn:boredom."
Lynne V. Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said Sunday that a study showed achievement tests give U.S. students little chance to show what they've learned in the classroom. Japanese and European students, meanwhile, are forced to prove they've mastered various subjects."Our most common, high-stakes examinations . . . do little to advance the notion that hard work in school matters," Cheney said in a statement accompanying the report, "National Tests: What Other Countries Expect Their Students to Know."
While American students are asked multiple-choice questions, Japanese students may be asked to identify European thinkers such as Euclid, Ptolemy, Bacon, Newton and Locke. And British students may have to argue in an essay whether Woodrow Wilson was "unbelievably naive" or "a dogged man of principle."
Cheney said the humanities endowment, an independent federal agency, looked at national tests in Japan, France, Germany, Britain and schools operated by the European Community. High school students in those countries must prove mastery of subject matter by organizing their thoughts, analysis and mounting arguments.
The United States has no equivalent exam, although the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Testing Program come close, Cheney said.
But, she said, both the SAT and the ACT are basically multiple-choice, have an "arm's length relationship to curricula" and avoid assessing factual knowledge that a student might have learned in the classroom.
"Examinations assessing performance are harder to grade than those that rely exclusively on multiple-choice, but the experience of other countries shows that it can be done," Cheney said.
The SAT and ACT measure aptitude rather than achievement, Cheney said. Achievement tests, she said, convey the idea that mastery of school subjects is important.
President Bush and Education Secretary Lamar Alexander have called for voluntary national achievement tests.
The examinations would be made available to all fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade students in the subjects of math, science, English, history and geography.
But Monty Neill of the private National Center for Fair & Open Testing said, "No other country has national exams like those the administration proposes - not Germany, not Japan, not Great Britain, not France."