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Some Question Inconsistencies in Clinton Testing Proposal

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When President Clinton proposed in a speech to the nation's governors and corporate leaders that states require students to pass a test to move to the next grade or to graduate from high school, he raised a few eyebrows.

Mr. Clinton spoke at last month's education summit in Palisades, N.Y., which focused on how to establish higher academic standards and better assessments to measure students' progress toward those goals, as well as how to better use technology to improve education. Forty governors and 49 corporate leaders attended. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.)

In his speech, the president said that in order to have meaningful standards, every state must mandate a test for students to make the transition from, for example, elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school, or to receive a high school diploma.

To some observers, Mr. Clinton's speech was inconsistent with administration policy.

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act--the administration's chief K-12 education initiative, which the president signed into law two years ago--included a prohibition on such high-stakes tests. The law says states that use Goals 2000 money to develop assessments aligned with high standards cannot use those tests for purposes such as grade promotion and graduation for five years.

But that testing provision was one the Clinton administration consistently opposed, said John F. Jennings, a former general counsel to the Democratic-controlled House education committee.

Mr. Jennings, now the director of the Center on National Education Policy in Washington, said last week that in order to secure support for the bill, the administration had to go along with the provision, one of the demands of liberal Democrats on the committee.

"The administration very reluctantly had to accept it," he said.

The idea behind the testing provision, according to those familiar with the legislation, was to give states time to thoughtfully implement rigorous academic standards and curricular changes. The five-year delay was supposed to ensure that states would have time to devise appropriate assessments.

Mr. Jennings added that the provision should have no real impact on the governors at the summit, who agreed to set internationally competitive standards and assessments within two years, because the five-year prohibition will have passed or nearly so.

OCR and Ohio

Mr. Clinton's proposal also raised hackles for another reason.

The president's endorsement of high-stakes testing was a contradiction of the U.S. Department of Education's 1994 investigation of Ohio's high school exit examination, argued Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute and a top department official in the Reagan administration.

In the investigation, the department's first into a state's exit test, the office for civil rights looked into complaints that minority students were failing the test in disproportionate numbers.

After a seven-month investigation, the OCR agreed that the test was not racially discriminatory. But the agreement between the OCR and Ohio seemed to indicate that the agency would continue to hold states responsible for adequately preparing students to take any such tests. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

Officials at the civil-rights agency are looking into a similar discrimination complaint filed in Texas against that state's exit exam but are trying to resolve the situation without a full investigation, an OCR spokesman said. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)

Currently, 17 states use minimum-competency examinations, most of which are a requirement for high school graduation, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

In his speech, the president called for tests that measure students' knowledge and skills beyond minimum-competency levels.

Mr. Finn, a summit attendee, said the Ohio probe sent a signal meant to dissuade other states from trying the same kind of testing. "All of the natural inclinations of the office for civil rights ... militate against high-stakes testing of exactly the kind that Bill Clinton was recommending."

Others disagreed. To say that the administration was being inconsistent because of the actions of the OCR "would be to suggest that you can only propose high-stakes tests if you don't hold states accountable for educating kids to the test and making sure the tests are valid and not used unfairly," said Paul Weckstein, a co-director of the Center for Law and Education in Washington, which advocates on behalf of low-income families and others. "That, to me, suggests some other folks are being hypocritical."

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