Published Online: February 19, 1997


Focus on Basics Key to Clinton Call for Testing

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President Clinton re-entered the contentious debate over national standards and testing this month with a proposal designed to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

His call for voluntary new national tests in reading and math could help move the discussion of academic standards back into the realm of ordinary citizens. Critics have described some of the existing standards documents as jargon-laden treatises written only for insiders.

Mr. Clinton is clearly seeking to respond to anxiety that children are not learning the basics. He even framed his proposal in the language of parental rights, co-opting an appeal most often made by conservatives.

The plan, unveiled in the president's State of the Union Address, won support from surprising quarters: Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch, two assistant secretaries of education under Republican presidents, both praised the idea. So did Republican Gov. John Engler of Michigan. Even some GOP members of Congress were receptive.

"I think that what is very smart about the president's approach is he's focusing on math and reading, which are probably the least controversial subjects," said Ms. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University. "Everybody agrees these are basic skills."

The plan also received accolades from groups representing big businesses, including the National Alliance of Business and the Business Roundtable.

Even so, the plan has not deflected criticisms. "It is the nationalization and federalization of education," said Kris Ardizzone, the legislative director for the Eagle Forum, the conservative group led by Phyllis Schlafly. "That's something the federal government is not empowered to do."

"Adding another test is not going to, by itself, improve anything," said Monty Neill, the associate director of the testing watchdog group FairTest.

Learning From Mistakes

President Clinton's plan would be limited to a reading test in grade 4 based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and a mathematics test in grade 8 based on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. ("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.) NAEP is a congressionally mandated assessment that is given to a national sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12; TIMMS is an international study that recently compared students' performance in math and science in 41 countries.

Focusing on two subjects in two grades and voluntary tests, Mr. Clinton hopes to avoid any specter of a federal curriculum.

"We were trying very deliberately to create a climate in which this can move forward without causing everyone to refight the old battles," Michael Cohen, the president's education adviser, said last week.

One of the mistakes that advocates of national standards made initially, said John Barth, the director of education policy studies for the National Governors' Association, "is that we didn't make it explicitly clear that you have to lay a foundation in basic learning in the early years in order to get to some higher-order thinking skills."

"If we can keep the debate on the right topics this will probably help," Mr. Barth said of the president's proposal. "If it becomes just more political holy wars over this stuff, then we're taking several steps backward."

'Already Have Standards'

Mr. Clinton also shifted the debate by focusing on the standards embedded in two widely respected, existing tests instead of those crafted in recent years by groups representing subject areas throughout the curriculum.

In doing so, he sidestepped the whole issue of whether the model national standards written by those groups are good enough.

"We already have widely accepted, rigorous national standards in both reading and math," Mr. Clinton said in a speech to the Maryland legislature last week, "and widely used tests based on those standards."

In reading, the standards Mr. Clinton is talking about are the reading frameworks and performance standards for NAEP, which set forth criteria for whether students are performing at a basic, proficient, or advanced level. The goal is to have every 4th grader perform at the basic level or above in reading. Only 60 percent scored that well in 1994.

In math, the standard is the framework for developing the TIMMS assessment; there are no real performance standards. The test simply identifies the international average across all of the countries that participated in the study in 1995-96.

Currently, only 45 percent of U.S. students perform at the international average; the goal is to have every 8th grader reach that mark. ("U.S. Students About Average in Global Study," Nov. 27, 1996.)

George Madaus, a professor of education and public policy at Boston College, said: "My position has always been that the national standards themselves don't mean anything until you have a test. It's the test that comes to operationalize and define the standards."

Many observers have worried that states are not setting rigorous enough standards. The tests envisioned by Mr. Clinton would provide them with a benchmark.

Effect on State Standards

The subject groups that wrote voluntary national standards in math and English praised Mr. Clinton's proposal.

"We see these national tests as focusing a lot of attention on the community resolve that's needed to make sure that our kids get the education in math that they need," Linda P. Rosen, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said last week.

She has offered the group's expertise to the Department of Education in drafting the specifications for the new tests. "My point was that we wanted test specifications that were grounded in what we view as important in the United States," she said.

Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, which developed model English standards in collaboration with the National Council of Teachers of English said, "I think in the area of reading, the NAEP framework is quite solid and a reasonable document."

"My only concern," he added, "is that there's a lot happening at the state level in developing standards, and that needs to be somehow meshed with what the president has in mind."

Few observers thought Mr. Clinton's proposal would lessen the emphasis on state standards-setting. "I think state standards is still the way we're moving," said Milton Goldberg, the executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business.

But he and others said they hope states can begin to identify a common core that all students should know, regardless of where they live.

Working Out Details

Under the president's plan, the Education Department would spend some $7 million this year and over the next several years to develop the 90-minute tests. The actual work would be done through competitive contracts with outside experts, with broad public input. New tests would be written annually.

The federal government would neither administer nor score the tests. Instead, it would license interested test publishers, states, and districts that could give them as part of their own testing programs.

The first round of tests would be ready in 1999 and would be offered free to school districts. In following years, states and schools would pay about $5 per student to participate, although the government would continue to pay for test development.

After each test administration, the entire test, along with answers and scoring guides, would be released. And the test and supporting materials would be available on the Internet so that parents, students, and teachers could know what was expected to reach the standards.

By making the test questions public the Education Department also hopes to avoid some of the controversy that has surrounded NAEP. Licensing the tests to commercial test publishers also avoids criticisms that the government is competing with them for business.

Michael H. Kean, the vice president for public and governmental affairs for CTB/McGraw-Hill, a leading test-maker, said it was too early to tell whether the proposal would win the backing of test publishers.

It is anticipated that about 80 percent of the test items would be multiple choice and that about 20 percent would require students to produce their own answers.

Another Test Needed?

Some observers, such as Mr. Neill of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, questioned whether creating new tests was a judicious use of resources and would help students who already were failing in school.

Mr. Neill also suggested that teachers would feel pressured to teach to the tests--something that he believes would work to inflate NAEP scores, eventually sabotaging the usefulness of the existing national assessment.

Similar arguments contributed to the defeat of President Bush's testing proposals in his America 2000 plan.

Others wondered whether the $5-per-student fee would be an adequate amount, given the scope of the plan. "The development costs might be OK," said William J. Randall, the chairman of the governing board that oversees NAEP. "But I have not seen a $5-per-student test in 10 years that was worth much."

Mark D. Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, also worried about sustaining participation once the federal money is gone. Getting states and schools to participate in NAEP has been a problem in the past.

"You could say that it will be so valuable that the states will see it and run with it," Mr. Musick said. "I think you're going to need something that goes a little bit beyond that."

State officials in Democratic-led Maryland already have said they will incorporate the new tests into their state's program.

Ken S. Stroupe, the press secretary for Republican Gov. George Allen of Virginia, said: "Presumably the tests would be geared toward the national standards and not toward Virginia's academic standards. And, frankly, Virginia's academic standards are better than this one-size-fits-all that's being adopted by Washington."

Staff Writer David J. Hoff contributed to this report.

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