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By All Measures: 'This Lacuna Must Be Eliminated'

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What other institution in our society would contemplate such a dramatic treatment without proceeding slowly and systematically, and without some independent mechanism to monitor the consequences?

It is true that the National Council on Education Standards and Testing proposes the establishment of a body called the National Education Standards and Assessments Council, or NESAC, which would have the task of establishing guidelines for standard-setting and assessment development and general criteria to determine the appropriateness of standards and assessments recommended. But more is needed. Such a body could not provide sufficient, impartial oversight over its own activities. Witness the recent controversy over standard-setting procedures with a similar board, the National Assessment Governing Board.

What is needed is an impartial, credible organization, independent of NESAC, to monitor, audit, evaluate, regulate, provide oversight, certify--pick your verb or combinations--not only NESAC's work, but also the planning, development, implementation, and consequences of such a monumental innovation as a national testing system.

It is not that regulation, auditing, or oversight are uncommon in American society. Regulations govern an almost limitless range of things, including consumer products such as automobiles, toys, cat food, and power tools; financial products and services; industrial practices, particularly those involving safety issues; commercial practices such as advertising and labeling; and professional and occupational conduct. Given the widespread use of regulation in society, it is strange that testing, which is an important instrument of public accountability and is widely used in decisions to allocate educational and employment opportunities, has so far largely escaped regulation. This is a lacuna which must be eliminated.

The need is all the greater when one considers that it is children's lives that are affected, not just material things. If the medical profession were faced with a policy decision to introduce a major new untried medical technology to millions of children, particularly a treatment that would be given to healthy children as well those who were ill, they would surely ask about the safety, efficacy, quality, and social and economic effects of the treatment. The American people should likewise demand answers to similar questions about national tests.

If we are not to wait until the year 2000 to learn from a pediatrician that we have another "Lake Woebegone'' phenomenon, we need an independent auditing body, and we need it now.

George Madaus is the Boisi professor of education and director of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy at Boston College.

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