COLOR ME UNPREPARED. The poor state of our nation's high schools in the era of No Child Left Behind is almost overwhelming. A new report from ACT, the college-prep testing service that administers the popular alternative to the SAT, finds that even when students take the federally recommended college preparatory curriculum of four years of English and three years each of social studies, science, and math, only 25 percent of them are truly prepared for the higher order reading, writing, quantitative, and critical thinking skills needed to succeed in college. As The New York Times reports in an article on the study:

Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, another Washington-based group that advocates standard-setting, said that as she traveled around the country, she found many schools not offering challenging work.

"When you look at the assignments these kids get, it is just appalling," she said. "A course may be labeled college-preparatory English. But if the kids get more than three-paragraph-long assignments, it is unusual. Or they'll be asked to color a poster. We say 'How about doing analysis?' and they look at us like we are demented."

Standardized testing is one of those areas where I find some common ground with people I usually disagree with. When I lived in France, I was struck by how comfortable French people were conversing on politics, great literature, and current events generally. France is a much older culture with a proud history of intellectualism, and one of the ways those cultural values manifest is in the nation's educational standards. French high school students stress for months over their "bac" exams, which are both subject and skills-based. Great authors must be read to prepare, and writing and analytical skills are tested when students are asked to reflect on the work of Moliere, Colette, or Sartre. Of course, a national curriculum can be deeply problematic. In France, educational progressives have pushed for inclusion of non-white authors from the Maghreb on the bac reading lists. And I certainly hate to think about the reading lists a Bush appointee would support (intelligent design nationwide!). But it seems to me that the combination of high standards, both knowledge and skills-based assessment, and extra individualized resources for at-risk kids and poor schools would create a more informed and economically secure populace.

Of course, easier said than done. And there's your liberal French-loving New York Times-reading prognostication of the day.

--Dana Goldstein

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