Top Test Administrator Switching Sides, Joining ETS
As the Department of Education's research chief, Sharon Robinson watched almost 5 percent of her office's budget go to the Educational Testing Service to write and analyze a student-achievement test in 45 states.
Now, after four years as the administrator of national tests and research, Ms. Robinson is giving up her assistant secretary's post in the department to join the ETS. Her newly created job is designed to put data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other ETS-designed tests into the hands of policymakers.
Ms. Robinson's new job will have little to do with the nonprofit testing company's attempt to retain the $19 million-a-year NAEP contract, which is up for renewal next year, she and ETS officials say. Ms. Robinson said she will not be involved in running the congressionally mandated tests.
Instead, in her Washington-based position as the company's vice president for state and federal relations, she will spend most of her time explaining to policymakers what NAEP and other test results mean and how the scores can inform policies set at the national and state levels.
"We keep collecting all the data, and we have this great fanfare as we release the results," Ms. Robinson said last week. "Rarely do we have a sustained conversation on what these data tell us."
"We want to be sure that the information we have is part of the discussion," said Nancy Cole, the president of the ETS. "We're seeking to be sure we take the data and we get it in a form that is relevant, and get it to people who need to see it."
As President Clinton prepares for his second term, a slew of Cabinet and other appointees are leaving the government to return to private business, electoral politics, or academia. At least half the Cabinet-level jobs will change hands next year, and dozens of assistant secretaries will leave as well.
At the Department of Education, Ms. Robinson is the only top-level official to announce a departure so far. Others may join her, department officials say, if Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley decides to leave his post. ("Riley's Fate in Clinton's Second Term Up in the Air," Nov. 20, 1996.)
Some may see Ms. Robinson's new job as a conflict of interest, but she and Ms. Cole say the they will obey the strictest ethics standards.
Ms. Robinson said she recused herself from decisions on the NAEP contract as soon as she started discussing her new job with ETS officials earlier this year. In keeping with federal ethics rules, once she formally joins the giant testing company on Jan. 1, she will not work on the NAEP contract proposal or any other application for funding the ETS submits to the department.
"If she avoids that relationship altogether, then it's not a real conflict of interest," said Chester E. Finn Jr., who held Ms. Robinson's position during the Reagan administration and is now a scholar at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
The NAEP contract represents about 5 percent of the revenues for the Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit company, according to an ETS spokeswoman. The company also designs and administers the SAT and other exams for prospective college and graduate students.
Ms. Robinson's potentially sensitive move to a job with an Education Department contractor is not uncommon in the field, another of her predecessors said, because money from more than 240 department programs finds its way to most national groups.
"It's so hard for people in the education field to find something that isn't connected in some way to what they had access to" while working in the federal government, said Christopher T. Cross, who held the assistant secretary's post early in the Bush administration and is now the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education.
In joining the ETS, Ms. Robinson will also join Mr. Cross, Mr. Finn, and another prominent predecessor as assistant secretary, Diane Ravitch, in the broader national dialogue over school reform and educational achievement.
Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch both attended the national education summit in March as experts advising governors and business leaders there. Mr. Cross has used his current post to spearhead revisions to the voluntary national history standards after conservatives criticized them as being too liberal.
Ms. Robinson's job overseeing the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement is a natural springboard to the broader debate, Mr. Cross and Ms. Ravitch say.
"It's an agency that has a huge span," said Ms. Ravitch, a former Bush appointee who is now a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution here and a senior research scholar at New York University. "Everything it does has something to do with the rest of the department."
"The office gives you a perspective that is so broad and an understanding of what the issues are," Mr. Cross added.
Ms. Robinson also will draw on her 15 years of experience at the National Education Association, heading its National Center for Innovation and other school reform efforts before joining the Clinton administration in 1993.
Her new role may lead her to brief Congress on national assessment results or analyze a state's NAEP scores for its legislators.
"We want a relationship that would permit them to call on ETS to help them determine the type of policies and tools they might use," Ms. Robinson said.