Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Chiefs' Group Backs Clinton Testing Proposals

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A group representing the states' top education officials last week endorsed the outline of President Clinton's national testing proposals, but several of its members expressed doubts that the final product would be what they need.

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The Council of Chief State School Officers adopted a one-page resolution spelling out its support for Mr. Clinton's plan to "open new ways for students to strive toward world-class performance" by offering tests to assess 4th graders' reading ability and 8th graders' math skills.

"The significant thing about it is it will raise standards," said Henry R. Marockie, the group's president and the West Virginia schools superintendent.

"A year or two after this is administered ... the reality is this test will be exactly what we want," he said.

Despite the CCSSO's unanimous endorsement, some individual members are being more cautious than Mr. Marockie.

Some say they prefer their own state testing programs and do not want to participate in voluntary national programs. Others say they will await the details of Mr. Clinton's plan before they sign up.

Hesitating Chiefs

In a full day of debate over the proposed resolution at the organization's annual legislative conference here last week, members identified three areas they say need to be addressed: avoiding duplication with existing state tests; ensuring the reliability of the tests during the fast-track development schedule envisioned by the administration; and keeping costs down.

Those issues were outlined in the resolution the chiefs gave to Vice President Al Gore in a meeting early last week.

The vice president greeted the chiefs on behalf of Mr. Clinton, who canceled his previously scheduled meeting with them because he was recuperating from the knee surgery he underwent three days earlier.

"These concerns are all expressed within the context of support," said Gordon M. Ambach, the council's executive director. "There are concerns we all believe can be worked through."

Members of the administration team working on the tests were not deterred by the hesitating chiefs.

"They're asking the right questions," said Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education. "The more and faster they ask them, the better off we're going to be."

While the council of state superintendents is optimistic that the problems can be solved, the Education Leaders Council, the conservative-leaning group started by a number of state superintendents and board members, is not, said Gary Huggins, the ELC's executive director.

The new group supports many of the concepts behind the testing proposal, but it is unsure whether Mr. Clinton can solve problems such as the ones raised by the chief state school officers at their meeting here.

"Our states are real concerned about the bar being lowered," Mr. Huggins said. "I don't see them doing a national program that will do anything but that."

Some in the chiefs' organization were similarly skeptical.

"This is going to be a very tough sell" to the governors, legislators, and state school boards that need to approve a state's participation in the test, Joseph A. Spagnolo, the Illinois superintendent of education, told Department of Education officials in a discussion of the national testing idea before the chiefs went to the White House.

Officials in Michigan, Maryland, and North Carolina have said they want their schools to take the tests, and Mr. Clinton has ordered the tests to be given in the 233 schools operated by the Department of Defense.

Caution in the States

The Education Department plans to pay the costs of taking the tests in the first year. After that, states would have to pay about $5 per student to participate, according to department officials.

Mr. Clinton wants states to administer the tests, starting in 1999, so they have barometers of individual student achievement and can compare aggregate results with one another. ("Political Shift Emboldens Clinton To Urge Tests," Feb. 19, 1997.

Several chiefs are cautious about joining the national effort because they don't know exactly how the national tests will coincide with their own assessments, which states are starting to launch. ("Testing Ventures Tied to Standards Take Flight," March 19, 1997.)

"My only concern ... is it's not going to be linked to what we're doing in our own states," Robert V. Antonucci, the Massachusetts education commissioner, told the federal officials last week.

Mr. Antonucci later said in an interview that his state is piloting tests to be given in several core subjects--including reading and math--in the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades. "I want to avoid duplication, where we're more focused on what we're testing than on what we're teaching," he said.

Others are certain their states won't join Mr. Clinton's plans.

Anne C. Fox, Idaho's superintendent, said her state would ignore Mr. Clinton's program and continue to use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for students from the 3rd through 11th grades. But Ms. Fox said she did not object to the CCSSO's taking a stand on an issue she disagrees with, so long as participation remains voluntary.

Mr. Marockie, by contrast, said West Virginia probably would continue to offer the Stanford Nine achievement tests, except for 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. At those levels, the state would substitute the national tests.

"If this test were available today, we'd jump in with both feet," he said.

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