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President Bush's education crusade faces long odds. The United States has 90,000 public schools with 2.9 million teachers and almost 50 million students. Local control is strong, and federal money has never exceeded 10 percent of school funds. What students learn depends not only on schools but also on family, natural ability and (often) the luck of having an exceptional teacher or principal. Whether the national government can improve this organized anarchy is unclear, but Bush's plan is far superior to the usual approach: throwing more money at schools.

Contrary to Washington rhetoric, the plan is not mainly about vouchers. It's about what educators call "high-stakes" tests, which have consequences for schools, principals, teachers and students. The theory is that schools need specific goals - and should be punished or rewarded on how well they meet them. This is the system in Texas, where gains seem undeniable.

The best evidence comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal test of achievement given to a small sample of students. Until the 1990s, the NAEP tests didn't provide scores for individual states. But since then, Texas has ranked high. Here are some results, according to Ed Fuller of the University of Texas:

From 1992 to 1996, Texas fourth-graders' math rankings improved sharply. Among ethnic groups, whites rose from 12th to first, African-Americans from 9th to first and Hispanics from 12th to sixth.

Texas eighth-graders moved higher on math tests. Between 1990 and 1996, whites went from 13th to ninth, African-Americans from 15th to sixth and Hispanics from 11th to ninth.

In the 1998 writing exam for eighth-graders, Texas students ranked first (African-Americans) or second (whites and Hispanics).

There's still controversy about Texas' gains. One study from the Rand Corp., a research institute, put Texas among the best-performing states. A second Rand study - done by different researchers and heavily publicized by Al Gore's campaign - said Texas did little better than the national average. Fuller contends that some of the 1990s' gains reflect steps taken in the 1980s to lower class size and improve teacher quality. But "something is clearly happening in Texas," he says.

And maybe elsewhere, too. A recent survey of school quality by Education Week magazine reported: "Some of the states making the greatest gains in reading and mathematics on (the NAEP) in the 1990s, such as Connecticut, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas, also were early and consistent supporters of state standards and assessments."

Even supporters admit that "high-stakes" tests have limits. If the tests are too easy, the results will be meaningless. If the tests are too hard, they will cause a public backlash, because too many schools will fail. Too much test preparation may stifle good teaching. Still, the alternative to tests - no standards, no accountability - is a cop-out. Although all states have some tests, only "27 hold schools accountable for the results," says Education Week. The real "pressure for change comes from media and the public," says Fuller, because scores are published in local papers and compared with other schools.

Bush would continue this approach. Under his plan, states would set their own standards. If schools fell below the minimum, they would have three years - and extra federal money - to improve. Only then would parents receive federal funds (the "vouchers") for their children to attend another school, public or private. This would hardly "voucherize" public schools.

One omission from Bush's plan is a test for high-school students. Until students are 10 or 12, accountability fairly focuses on principals and teachers. But they can't compensate for student laziness. If most students can graduate and go to college without working hard, they will. Below the academic elite, this is what happens today. More states need "exit" exams for a high-school diploma (Texas has one). Similarly, the federal government should require students who want federal college aid to pass a test showing they are prepared for college.

After health care, education is government's largest activity. The need is not to spend more but to spend better. Bush steps cautiously in that direction. "No child left behind," he says.

With luck, perhaps fewer children left behind.

Washington Post Writers Group

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