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House Panel Likely To Adopt Student-Testing Measure

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WASHINGTON--The House Education and Labor Committee appears likely to adopt legislation that would allow the development of a national assessment system for measuring student achievement.

But the panel is also likely to mandate that schools' performance be assessed against national standards, to require schools using the voluntary assessments to provide remedial assistance to low-scoring students, and to usurp some control of the process from the National Education Goals Panel.

Those ideas are all strongly opposed by the Bush Administration, and could draw a veto of the underlying bill.

Democratic committee members met last week to prepare for a markup of HR 4323, which would provide funds to states and school districts to develop and implement education-reform plans. The primary unresolved issue is what assessment provisions the panel will attach to the bill, which was introduced in February by its chairman, Representative William D. Ford of Michigan.

A companion Senate bill, S 2, contains provisions implementing recommendations of the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, a 32-member panel of educators, business leaders, governors, Administration officials, and members of Congress.

The council's proposal would authorize the goals panel to oversee the development of national achievement standards. The panel, which would be reconfigured for political balance, would establish an advisory council dominated by educators that would certify assessments developed at the state or regional level.

Pondering Three Options

While two key Education and Labor members were members of NCEST, they have expressed concerns about how the assessments would be used, and other members of the committee have deep reservations about the potential impact of a testing system on disadvantaged children.

In an attempt to reach agreement, aides to Representative Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, chairman of the Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee, drafted three options that were presented at last week's Democratic caucus.

According to documents obtained by Education Week, one of the options is to adopt the NCEST proposal.

At the other extreme was a plan to authorize grants to subject-matter groups for standards-setting projects and authorize Education Department research on new forms of assessment, but flatly prohibit the use of federal funds for development of a national assessment system. This option shut out the goals panel.

Mr. Kildee is apparently arguing for the third option.

It calls for authorizing a reconfigured goals panel to oversee standards-setting activities by subject-matter groups, and mandating assessment research by the National Academy of Sciences. The N.A.S. would establish a "National Board on Assessment'' to help states and school districts develop assessments, but only 4th-grade tests would be authorized initially.

The N.A.S. would also make recommendations on national "school delivery'' standards measuring schools' capacity to educate children, and Mr. Kildee's plan would mandate that such standards be in place prior to the use of "high stakes'' tests. It would also require aid for low scorers.

An aide to Mr. Ford said the chairman will support the Kildee plan, and several aides predicted that other committee Democrats would support it as well. Legislation is to be drafted in time for a late-April markup.

Testing 'Will Go Ahead Anyway'

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a member of the goals panel and a co-chairman of NCEST, participated in last week's caucus. He said in an interview that he is "in sympathy with'' the lawmakers, adding: "We don't want to set standards without giving kids a chance to reach them.''

Mr. Romer said he is "optimistic,'' but acknowledged that President Bush might veto the Kildee plan.

"It's going to go ahead anyway,'' he said. "If there's no mechanism to get assistance at the national level, states will form a consortium and do it.''

"I don't think it will be as fast, and possibly without as much quality,'' Mr. Romer said.

One committee aide said Democratic lawmakers were persuaded by the argument that they should adopt a testing strategy to gain some control over the enterprise. To that end, they also added a provision last week to a bill reauthorizing the Education Department's research branch that would prohibit any assessment activity that is not specifically authorized.

The committee's Republicans are to caucus on the issue this week.

"If they want a bipartisan bill, we'll work with them,'' said John F. Jennings, a top Democratic aide.

But even if committee Republicans were willing to go along, it is unlikely that the Administration would accept most of the Kildee plan's key provisions, and a partisan conflict is virtually certain should they survive a House-Senate conference.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week hinted at a veto.

He told reporters that the Administration would look at the ultimate legislative product as a package and ask, "Is it a significant step or isn't it?'' But he said he is growing "increasingly pessimistic'' about the chances for legislation this year.

The Secretary expressed anger and frustration at the Democrats' refusal to embrace his agenda of testing, private-school choice, "break the mold'' schools, and regulatory flexibility.

"I don't know if Congress as an institution is capable of supporting that much change,'' Mr. Alexander said.

Both S 2 and HR 4323 include innovative schools as a potential use of reform funds, but not the massive, wide-open competition Mr. Alexander envisioned. S 2 contains a demonstration project allowing the Secretary to waive some education rules, and aides said a more targeted proposal will be added to HR 4323.

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