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Senate Subcommittee Samples Views On Need for National Achievement Test

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By Lonnie Harp

Washington--A Senate subcommittee last week opened hearings on the reauthorization of the Education Department's research arm by sampling opinions on the need for a national achievement test.

Several lawmakers acknowledged that their own stance on the controversial issue remains murky. But they also said they were concerned about the potential fallout from such a test on student performance and other areas.

Senator Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities, described himself as a longtime supporter of a voluntary national exam. He said he was now open to the idea of making such a test, or battery of tests, mandatory.

The Senator also addressed concerns voiced by some educators that a national test might lead to a national curriculum.

"In some ways, we already have the elements of a national curriculum because of the dominance of a few states in the selection of textbooks," Senator Pell said. "The real question may be, 'What elements do we want to be part of that national curriculum?"'

The Senator found reinforcement from some witnesses, including Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who urged lawmakers not to be "overcautious" on the testing issue.

"With all of the problems that are out there, what we pay for not having a national system of exams is a terri4ble price," Mr. Shanker said. "When you have no standards, essentially that lowers the value of education."

But several advocates of a national test advised the panel to limit itself to setting standards on what skills students should master, rather than prescribing a uniform test.

"Simply setting exams will not do anything more than recording that we are not doing well," said Lauren Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the leading forces behind one of the national-exam systems currently being developed. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

In his written responses to questions from the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Lamar Alexander, President Bush's nominee for Secretary of Education, said that while he supports the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee, which recommended a national exam, he believes "the place we need to begin is with world-class standards.''

"Then more than one test could be devised that all children could take," Mr. Alexander wrote. "I don't think we need only one test."

The effort to set standards won support as well from Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, who said he was uncomfortable with any plan to mandate a single national exam.

"I'm glad to hear we're talking about something a little different,'' the Senator said, arguing that any move toward a national test or national standards should be part of broader efforts to increase federal support for poor children and early-childhood programs.

Other witnesses urged the panel to consider increasing support for research on assessments before jumping into the testing issue.

"That needs a tremendous boost," said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Researchers' work on new forms of assessment is progressing rapidly, he said, and should be encouraged.

"The issue we must face is one of design," said C.L. Hutchins, executive director of the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory in Colorado.

Beyond the form of the assessment, Senator Nancy Kassabaum, Republican of Kansas, said she was unsure whether a national credential would be beneficial until school restructuring takes hold.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, noted that a national testing program might help educators focus attention on subject areas that need more attention.

Despite the growing national debate, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said too many questions remain unanswered.

"I hope we approach this issue with the necessary caution," he said. "In our fervor to measure outcomes and assess progress, we want to make sure that we do not test without first deciding the purpose of testing and then choosing or developing a test that meets this purpose.''

Subcommittee aides said that while Senator Pell plans to develop a bill on the national-test issue, it probably will be developed only after further deliberations over the next few months.

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