Rep. Goodling Worries National Test Is Seen as Cure-All
Washington--Proposals to establish a new national test of student achievement may unfairly sort students and do little to improve schooling, a key member of a House panel said here last week.
Speaking during a two-day hearing on an issue that has risen rapidly up the education agenda, Representative William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, signalled that House members may be more reluctant than their Senate colleagues to endorse the proposals.
Members of a Senate education subcommittee, at a hearing on the issue the previous week, indicated that they were willing to explore the idea. (See Education Week, March 13, 1991.)
Quoting from a letter written by Donald M. Carroll Jr., commissioner of education in Pennsylvania, Mr. Goodling warned against a "pell-mell rush to jump on the bandwagon" of national testing.
"Will a test drive teachers to teach better?" he asked. "Will it drive parents to parent better? Will it drive students to try harder? Will it attract the best and brightest to the profession? Will it change teacher-training institutions?"
"If it will do all those things," he continued, "then I'd be all for it."
A sponsor of one of the national-assessment proposals, former Secretary of Labor William E. Brock, responded by acknowledging that tests are not a "silver bullet" that would solve education's problems.
But, he suggested, the information gleaned from such assessments is a key element in any strategy to improve schools.
"We know what works; we aren't doing it," said Mr. Brock, who is chairman of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, which is considering a series of assessments of students' workplace skills. "You can't do it unless you know if you're falling off the track. That's where assessment comes in."
Last week's hearings before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education were aimed at helping the panel sort through the various testing proposals that have surfaced in recent months, according to the panel's chairman, Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan.
"Several national-testing trains appear to be approaching the station at the same time," he said.
During the second day of the hearings, Mr. Brock ignited a sharp debate by suggesting that some form of national assessment is necessary to compare United States students' performance against that of students from other nations that compete with the U.S. economically.
"If we will provide information--on math, science, and functional skills--to individuals and let them know where they are in relationship to people around the world," he said, "they will respond."
But Mr. Goodling said it is unfair to compare education in the United States with that in other countries, where family structures are more intact and schooling tends to screen out poor performers.
"It's so easy to be simplistic," he said. "You can't compare [the Japanese] culture" to ours.
Gregory R. Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service, told the panel that several of the national-testing advocates haveel10lproceeded backward.
Rather than begin with a test, he said, the groups should first obtain a national consensus on what students ought to know and be able to do, and then devise a system for measuring against those standards.
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, chairman of the National Education Goals Panel, said he agreed with that strategy, and added that his panel is considering a system of multi-state examinations--rather than a single test--that would accomplish that aim.
"The issue isn't tests," he said, "it's the level of achievement.''
The previous day's hearing focused on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally mandated project that measures student achievement in a range of subjects.
Testing experts urged the panel to move cautiously in expanding the test to permit additional state-by-state, or district-by-district, comparisons of student achievement.
Currently, naep is authorized to conduct pilot state-level assessments in reading and mathematics in grades 4 and 8 in 1992. Last year, it conducted the first-ever state-level assessment, in 8th-grade math. Results are expected to be released in June.
Daniel M. Koretz, a senior social scientist at the rand Corporation, said additional expansion could destroy naep's value as the only national monitor of student performance.
"It is difficult--impossible--for a test to serve [different] functions at the same time," Mr. Koretz said. "Using a test for accountability can undermine its accuracy as a monitoring tool."
Robert L. Linn, who is directing a Congressionally mandated evaluation of the 1990 state-level assessment, said the panel is likely to consider recommending extending it--but only on a pilot basis--in 1994.
"Many things will be untried at the end of 1992," said Mr. Linn, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
But Herbert J. Walberg, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said authoring state-by-state comparisons, and lifting the prohibition against using naep data at the school and district levels, would help improve the project's ability to inform education-policy decisions.