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Where in the world is that No. 2 pencil?

Ah, to be young and ... exam-bound?

Apparently, it's not just access to American movies that teenagers worldwide have in common. At some point, they're likely to be seated near a ticking clock and handed a test form so they can prove they've learned enough - or memorized enough - to move on to the next level of education.

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Today's lead story - told by students literally oceans apart - is a study in similarities and contrasts. Most of them will soon face tough exams that, to some degree, will determine their future. But for a few, simply having made it into high school means being part of an academic elite in their societies. While Americans have come to expect that practically everyone should go to college, European students are often tracked for certain job categories early on; in China, only 2 percent of the population gets a university degree.

People in the United States are still conflicted about testing, and about the consequences certain test results should carry. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that 77 percent of adults thought public-school students should be required to pass a standardized test in order to be promoted to the next grade level. But in the same survey, 53 percent said it's unfair to determine what a student knows or has achieved based on a single standardized test.

It's a good reality check to see that some countries have a long history of tests with much higher stakes than the ones we're currently debating here.

Meanwhile, it's heartening to know that, despite the pressure, these teens' lives are far from ruined. They're probably out right now with friends, squeezing in a trip to the movies between cram sessions.

E-mail teichers@csps.com