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Legislation To Create National System Of Standards, Assessments Under Fire

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WASHNGTON--Lawmakers leery of the idea of creating a national assessment system apparently have enough support to make major changes in pending legislation that could jeopardize the enterprise.

In the past few weeks, members of the House Education and Labor Committee have been engaged in a spirited debate over proposals to launch such a system.

"There would be some changes that would make the whole deal fall apart,'' Deputy Secretary of Education David T. Kearns acknowledged last week after testifying before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

The Congressionally authorized National Council on Education Standards and Testing--a 32-member panel of educators, business leaders, and government officials--drafted the proposal to create a process for setting national achievement standards and certifying assessments with which to measure progress toward them.

The council's recommendations essentially represent a deal struck between the Bush Administration and key governors and lawmakers who served on the council.

They include a reconfiguration of the National Education Goals Panel, which lawmakers have long sought. That panel would oversee the standards-setting effort, along with a new advisory council dominated by educators that would certify assessments developed at the state or regional level. (See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)

Provisions implementing the recommendations were attached to S 2, a bill designed to promote education reform that was approved by the Senate in February.

The provisions met with no opposition in the Senate, but several senators expressed reservations about national testing last week at a markup of legislation to reauthorize education-research programs.

And a substantial faction on the House committee harbors strong misgivings about the assessment plan.

For Learning or Scorekeeping?

The most vocal with questions are liberal Democrats, particularly those who are members of minority groups. They fear that national testing would worsen the predicament of disadvantaged students, who would likely not fare well on the assessments.

While the results could be used to support demands for aid to such students, an aide to one such panel member said, "minority members are painfully aware of how high-stakes testing is used to push minority kids into dead ends.''

"There are some very gung-ho people involved in this process who haven't paid much attention to the consequences it could have,'' the aide said.

Even lawmakers who do not oppose an assessment system, including some Republicans, have expressed concern about the content of the tests and how they might be used.

"As a former teacher, I've always preached that the purpose of assessment should be to see where you failed to get a point across to the student so you can go back and fix it,'' Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said in an interview.

"I am concerned about whether [tests] will be used for learning purposes or scorekeeping purposes,'' Mr. Goodling, who served on the îãåóô panel, said. "That's why I urged the council to move slowly.''

Caucuses Planned

At a hearing on the issue last week, Representative Tom Sawyer, Democrat of Ohio, expressed concern that national assessment results would be touted by "those who would like to replace our system of public education.''

Aides said committee members were also strongly influenced by an Office of Technology Assessment report that noted that the use of high-stakes tests has caused negative, unintended consequences in the past. The report concluded that a national assessment system should not be instituted without further research. (See Education Week, Feb. 26, 1992.)

Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee, plans to attach testing provisions to HR 4323, a counterpart to S 2, before moving it to the House floor, although an aide said he had not yet decided what provisions to support.

The panel's Democrats and Republicans will first caucus separately, possibly next week, and the issue could be considered the week after that.

If doubters succeed in attaching significant amendments to the council recommendations that are anathema to the Administration and key governors--such as a requirement that school resources and performance be assessed along with student achievement--it could explode the consensus that was reached through NCEST

"They want to kill the deal,'' a Senate aide said. "We'll retain the status quo, the test publishers will be happy, teachers will be comfortable about how they are evaluated, and nothing will change.''

Administration Objections

While Mr. Kearns acknowledged that some changes could jeopardize the deal, he said, "it would be kind of arrogant to say we would oppose it if they made any changes at all.''

Mr. Kearns specifically said the Administration would strongly oppose two ideas that committee members and aides said will certainly be raised by testing detractors: so-called service-delivery standards and a federal commitment to aiding schools whose students do not measure up to the national standards.

"If there were legislation mandating federal service-delivery standards, we would have a major problem with that,'' Mr. Kearns said. "We can't tell them how to run their schools.''

The NCEST panel was divided on this question, but the Administration officials and governors who led it were strongly opposed. Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, the current Republican chairman of the goals panel, was particularly vocal.

The panel recommended that states develop their own delivery standards at their own pace.

But observers predicted that the House committee will require that such standards be implemented alongside achievement measures.

Representative Dale E. Kildee, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee, said members may seek additional authority over the panel that is to certify assessments. And observers said the panel is also likely to demand an explicit commitment of federal resources.

"There isn't any point in going through this process if you're not going to commit the resources to make a difference,'' Mr. Goodling said.

But Mr. Kearns told the subcommittee that "the appropriate sequence'' would be to start testing and then discuss remediation, adding that "outcomes are not necessarily tied to resources.''

Possible Compromise?

One possible compromise noted by lawmakers and aides is to authorize development of achievement standards but wait to approve development of actual tests until later. Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat who is a member of the goals panel and a co-chair with Mr. Campbell of NCEST, suggested that approach at a hearing last month.

Mr. Kearns also suggested mandating that the tests for younger children not have high-stakes consequences.

But observers agree that it is likely that lawmakers will insist on some provisions the Administration and some governors will be loath to accept. Will President Bush veto the bill on those grounds?

"Then they'll have nothing,'' said Mr. Kildee, noting that the Administration is eagerly seeking authorization--and millions of dollars--to begin work on standards and assessments.

If the legislation dies, Mr. Goodling said, "nothing will happen this year.''

While the Administration has insisted that it technically has the authority to pursue assessment activities without specific approval, and could proceed through the goals panel, Mr. Goodling said, "that would be stupid.''

The Congress has already restricted the Education Department's discretionary funding in an effort to prevent the Administration from pursuing unauthorized portions of its education agenda.

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