Will Bush pass the schools test?

Despite his many flawed ideas, from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and basing national energy policy exclusively on fossil fuels to his ridiculous missile-defense proposal, President Bush the Younger is getting a few things right.

For example, his determination to reduce unilaterally the size of the United States’ nuclear arsenal from 7,500 to 1,500-2,500 strategic warheads and remove them from hair-trigger alert goes a long way toward reducing nuclear anxiety. And his effort to relieve the suffering of the people of Iraq by reconfiguring sanctions on that country, targeting oil and weapons rather than civilian trade, is also praiseworthy. He’s on the right track in both cases.

He’s also close to succeeding in another important area, education reform, on which he based much of his campaign. The story hasn’t gotten much press, perhaps because it’s not as sexy as tax cuts, but Bush’s education plan has passed both houses of Congress and is currently in conference. Potentially, it’s the most important piece of federal education legislation in more than 30 years.

The bill, which Bush is sure to sign, will do two things. First, it will mandate national knowledge standards and require that students be tested yearly to measure how well they’ve done to meet those standards. Second, schools’ scores will be tracked, and low-performing schools will be held accountable.

Californians are well familiar with standards and testing, of course, and teachers and parents rightly complain that too much classroom time is spent testing students. Whether the federal bill will simplify the process or make it worse depends on the form the bill takes when it emerges from the conference committee. Done right, however, the bill could be a godsend for American schools.

A key factor will be the guidelines the federal government gives states and local districts. The body of knowledge the guidelines identify as being important must be clear and make sense to most people. And there should be strict controls on the kinds of tests that can be used: The tests need to measure, simply and clearly, mastery of curriculum, not how students fare in comparison with others. Having a sound set of national standards—a body of knowledge all students should possess by the time they graduate from high school—is a noble goal.

By the same token, the system of school accountability needs to be fair and reasonable. We need to measure how well schools are doing, and testing, for all its limitations, is the best way to do that. But it will do no good to label one-third or half the schools in America as failures. At the same time, there must be clear accountability, especially for schools’ responsibility to their poor and minority students.

Whether Bush gets what he came to Washington to get, real education reform, is now up to him. All kinds of interested parties, from governors to teachers’ unions, are pressuring the conferees in an effort to soften the levels of accountability. Only the president can withstand the pressure and get a bill that will bring about substantive reform.

And then he will have to figure out a way to pay for it, something his one other significant accomplishment, passage of a massive tax cut measure, will make much more difficult to do. President Bush faces a test of his own making. Whether he passes it will say everything about his ability to lead.