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The Future Looks Cloudy for Standards-Certification Panel

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One victim of the controversy over national education standards could be the board designed to certify them.

Congress created the 19-member National Education Standards and Improvement Council last year as part of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. It is charged with certifying model national standards and state standards and assessments submitted for its approval.

But five months after the deadline set by the law, the board's members have not been named and its future looks bleak.

"I would say that the prospects are probably not very good," said an aide to a Democratic lawmaker who had supported NESIC. "It seems to be a focal point for some of the people who are not fans of the idea of standards-based education."

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, has promised to scrutinize NESIC during hearings this month on the federal role in education and training. And an aide said that Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, will likely introduce a bill to repeal the board. "My boss has never cared for it," the aide said.

Last month, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, released a briefing book for new members of Congress that proposed scrapping NESIC and the National Education Goals Panel. The book alleged that the groups developing the model national standards are "politically controlled" and that NESIC would "essentially serve as a 19-member national school board." (See Education Week, 12/07/94.)

Even at the White House, support for the board seems lukewarm at best. William A. Galston, a domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton, refused last month to comment on whether NESIC should exist, saying only: "We will fulfill our obligations under law."

Federal lawmakers could eviscerate the board through the appropriations process simply by choosing not to pay for it. They could also rescind the language in the Goals 2000 act that created the board. In addition, the President could defer the appointments to avoid political fire.

By law, council members were to be named last August. But Congress created a cumbersome nominating process in which Congressional leaders, the Secretary of Education, and the goals panel had to submit names to the President. Congress sent its nominations to the White House late last month--while the Democrats still held a majority. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley submitted his list soon after. But the White House has not indicated when Mr. Clinton will make the appointments.

No Constituency?

Originally, policymakers envisioned NESIC as a sounding board for development of standards in key academic subjects. It would address such questions as whether standards were of high quality, compared in rigor to those of other nations, and could be taught within an eight-hour school day. Some see this refereeing function as important, if not essential.

"The states have advocated for having a national council like this right from the beginning," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, "because they all need an objective and prestigious entity at the national level which will help them review all these voluntary national standards."

"If there is no NESIC," he added, "each state will have to undertake that review by itself. And to do this 50 times over does not make sense."

But the emphasis on state and local control in the new Republican-dominated Congress does not bode well for a national board, even one to which standards are submitted voluntarily.

"It symbolizes everything that's wrong with Clintonism in education: namely, Washington knows best," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration.

Some argue against a national stamp of approval to any standards at this early date.

"I don't believe there is any real constituency out there saying that NESIC is a vital thing to do," argued Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, who was an assistant education secretary in the Bush Administration.

'Clear the Air'

The compromises necessary to shepherd the authorizing legislation through Congress have contributed to the board's precarious position.

The National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a prestigious, bipartisan group created by Congress, recommended the creation of something like NESIC in 1992.

The now-defunct council urged that the bipartisan goals panel--then composed of governors, Congressional leaders, and Administration officials--appoint NESIC's members. Certification of standards and criteria for assessments would be the joint responsibility of NESIC and the goals panel.

But many members of Congress were leery of the goals panel, which had originally included their representatives as only nonvoting members. Indeed, the council on standards and testing had essentially been appointed to referee what was becoming a nasty dispute between lawmakers and the Bush Administration over the authority to set education policy.

Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University who served as an assistant secretary of education under President George Bush, asserted that Congress changed NESIC "in ways that made it more partisan and less able to perform the tasks assigned to it."

Ultimately, the Democratic 103rd Congress gave final authority for NESIC's appointments to Mr. Clinton. The Goals 2000 legislation--which also codified national education goals and formally authorized the reconfigured goals panel--reduced the goals panel's role in setting standards to that of naysayer: It could veto NESIC's decisions by a two-thirds vote.

Despite the board's overwhelming mandate, it was limited to a staff of five. And it could make all decisions by a simple majority.

"The idea that you might have national standards adopted by a vote of 10 to 9 is ridiculous," complained Ms. Ravitch.

Even the directors of the groups drafting national standards are skeptical.

"NESIC is going to be a lightning rod if it's created," said Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education, which drafted national standards for civics and government. "Why not forget it?"

Moreover, Congress provided few reasons--and some disincentives--for states to submit their standards and assessments to NESIC. No state has to submit its standards or assessments to the board to receive federal money. Any tests NESIC certifies cannot be used for high-stakes purposes--such as graduation--for five years.

'Very, Very Useful'

But even if Congress eliminates NESIC, the questions it was meant to address will remain: In what subjects should national or state standards be developed? How can Americans tell if the standards are good enough? What constitutes a fair assessment of student knowledge and skills?

Mr. Finn says the marketplace should make such judgments. Standards, he asserted, "should be bought or rejected on their merits by states and communities."

Others, including Ms. Ravitch, think those questions should be considered by the goals panel, which now includes state legislators as well as federal officials. The panel will take up the question of NESIC later this month.

Still others envision nongovernmental entities doing a lot of what NESIC was intended to do. Lynne V. Cheney, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who provided funding for the history-standards project as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, announced last month that she would form a group to review standards as they emerge.

"Some entity that did things that included comparing various state standards and frameworks and assessments would be very, very useful," said David K. Cohen, a professor of education at the University of Michigan.

Most observers hope that the likely demise of NESIC will not stall the standards movement.

Ken Nelson, the executive director of the goals panel, said: "I don't think it needs to slow the momentum and commitment to standards if it's clear the problem is the certification process."

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