All over the United States, students, parents and teachers are in an uproar about new high school graduation tests and the tens of thousands of students who have flunked them. Threats of withholding diplomas has brought out accusations, recriminations and even angry mobs.
States have devised various ways to deal with this crisis. Award the diplomas anyway, stonewall the complainers, keep the students in school an extra year, postpone the deadline to 2004 or even 2006, lower the standards, lower the cutoff score, reduce the number of questions a student must answer correctly, substitute another test or seek test waivers from the federal government.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 doesn't mandate a test for graduation, but it does require all schools to implement standards and annual tests in reading and math for students in grades three through eight and show "adequate yearly progress," not only for the school, but for minority subgroups. The buzzword is accountability; noncompliance brings costly sanctions.
The act was passed with bipartisan support. But the Democrats' biggest constituency, the teachers unions, opposed the tests initially and are now inciting the clamor against them, along with the usual whine that the solution is more money.
I'm going to venture the heretical opinion that I sympathize with the students who flunked. After the school failed to teach them to read, gave them good grades and promoted them year after year, it is no wonder they feel cheated when they are denied diplomas.
How did anybody expect students to pass-fourth grade, eighth-grade and 12th-grade tests who were not taught phonics in the first grade? Don't blame the students; blame the system that failed the students.
On June 19, the National Center for Education Statistics released its annual "National Assessment of Educational Progress," known as the Nation's Report Card, reporting that 36 percent of fourth-graders cannot read at what the test defined as a "basic" level. The figure for whites is 25 percent, for Latinos 56 percent, and for blacks 60 percent. The report can be seen online at www.nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard.
The NAEP report also revealed the consistent and dramatic decline of all reading skills in the upper grades. One in four 12th-graders cannot read at a basic level, down from one in five in 1992.
The explanation for this depressing report is obvious. Elementary school children can memorize a few hundred words so they are recorded as reading at grade level, but when they get to high school they cannot read the bigger words because they were never taught phonics - the system of sounding out the syllables and putting them together like building blocks.
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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