Published Online: February 19, 1997


Political Shift Emboldens Clinton To Urge Tests

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Annapolis, Md.

When President Clinton stood before most of the state governors at last year's education summit, he challenged states to craft academic standards and new tests but avoided saying the federal government would give the tests.

Now, 11 months later, national standards and testing are at the top of Mr. Clinton 10-point plan for education, and he visited the Maryland capital last week to use his bully pulpit to promote them.

"To compete and win in the 21st century, we must have a high standard of excellence that all states agree on," Mr. Clinton told Maryland legislators here. "That is why I called ... for national standards of excellence in the basics--not federal government standards--but national standards representing what all our students must know to succeed in a new century."

The new policy, which came together quickly in the past month, reflects Mr. Clinton's long-held belief that states need a national benchmark for comparing student achievement, current and former aides to the president say.

But it also demonstrates a shift in the political climate that has put education at the top of voters' concerns--a change giving Mr. Clinton latitude to risk criticism that his plans could usurp local control of schools.

Some Republicans, although cautious, say they will consider Mr. Clinton's plans, which hinge on national tests of 4th graders' reading skills and 8th graders' math achievement.("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.)

"It's one of the more intriguing parts of his education proposal," said Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees K-12 policy. "We need some sort of standardized assessment and performance-based assessment to ensure learning in the core academic subjects."

Questions of Process

To get the testing into classrooms by 1999, the administration's strategy is to operate without Congress, tapping accounts that give the Department of Education wide latitude in spending.

By avoiding Congress' laborious legislative process, the department should have tests ready to be piloted early next year and in use the year after that, said Michael Cohen, Mr. Clinton's education policy adviser.

But Mr. Riggs said he would push to give Congress some control.

"I want the administration to work with the authorizing committees," he said. "I do not want the president to bypass the authorizing committees in the House and Senate."

The ideal time to consider Mr. Clinton's testing plan, Mr. Riggs added, will be in the fall, when Congress considers revisions to the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the nonpartisan governing board that oversees it.

But now that Mr. Clinton has seized on the issue, he wants to see action to go along with the debate.

"We want to get this done," Mr. Cohen said last week. By waiting for congressional debate next fall, he said, it "would give us legislation by 1999, but not a test by 1999."

For some, the national-test debate is familiar. In 1991, President Bush proposed national testing in his America 2000 school reform agenda. That plan eventually died in Congress. While President Clinton has come slowly to his call for new tests, aides and observers point to a series of events that show that national testing has been a consistent interest for him.

The gathering of governors and corporate executives in Palisades, N.Y., last March refocused the president on his long-held belief that schools need tough academic standards and tests to determine whether students meet them, aides said.

Strategic Planning

But it was not until this month's State of the Union Address that he voiced his long-standing desire for national tests.

If he had called for a national test last March, strategists expected Republicans to respond by criticizing Mr. Clinton as wanting to use federal programs to bully local school boards--a charge that might have helped them argue for scaling back federal programs, according to Dick Morris, Mr. Clinton's former political adviser.

But the political landscape changed when Republicans backed away from large-scale cuts in April and then in September proposed major increases for federal programs such as Title I, the program aimed at children in poverty; special education; and Pell Grants for college students.

"The budget battle and the campaign resolved an issue that was still contentious," Mr. Cohen said.

After the campaign, Mr. Clinton began to think more seriously about backing national tests and started laying the groundwork as he contemplated his second term.

Plan Takes Shape

"I am for local control. I am not for federal government national standards," Mr. Clinton said in a Dec. 11 speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "But I am for national standards of excellence and a means of measuring it so we know what our children are learning."

Two days after his second inauguration, Mr. Clinton traveled to northern Illinois to release the scores of international math and science tests taken in 20 school districts there.

Mr. Clinton strayed from his prepared remarks and started to refine his ideas, Mr. Cohen said.

"To pretend that somehow ... agreeing that there has to be some uniform way of measuring [student performance] is giving up local control is just an excuse to avoid being held accountable," Mr. Clinton said in his Jan. 22 visit to Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill.

After that speech, the president assigned Mr. Cohen, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, and Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith to create a plan to make the new tests a reality.

In the week leading up to the Feb. 4 address to Congress, Mr. Clinton signed off on his team's idea to build new national tests from the 4th-grade-reading portion of NAEP and the 8th-grade-math section of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

Congressional observers are also intrigued that discussions about the federal role in improving schools have returned to some of the same issues that emerged from the 1989 education summit between President Bush and the nation's governors, including Mr. Clinton of Arkansas.

Back then, appropriators watched the Education Department closely as it spent money from its Fund for the Improvement of Education to advance Mr. Bush's plans. Now, Mr. Clinton's team plans to use that account to pay for the development of its own tests. ("Advisory Panel Presents National-Test Plan to Bush," Jan. 23, 1991.)

"This closes the circle," said John F. Jennings, who was the House Democrats' top education aide at the time and is now the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group. "It's ironic that after all that controversy we're back to where we were in the early 1990s."

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