Local Control Could Stymie Clinton Tests
President Clinton has found takers when he's pitched his national testing proposal to state legislators in Maryland, Michigan, and North Carolina.
But, if he wants his 4th grade reading test and 8th grade math assessment to find their way into every school in this state, he'll have to sell them to the superintendents and local school board members who represent Nebraska's 656 districts.
"Nebraskans fancy themselves as very independent," said Kathleen McCallister, the president of the state board of education. "Nebraska is not real trusting of Big Brother."
That independence factors into almost every decision Ms. McCallister and her colleagues make here in the state capital. They don't want to alienate voters by creating mandates--such as participation in the national testing effort.
But they are willing to give local officials "the right to make their own mistakes," Ms. McCallister said.
If a local school district wants to offer Mr. Clinton's tests, "you're not going to see this board stand in the way," she said in an interview after the state board met here this month. "The bottom line is: That's a local decision."
The president announced his voluntary national testing initiative in his State of the Union Address in February.
And, while states are not obligated to sign up for the program, Mr. Clinton said the federally funded tests would allow the states that do to gauge whether students are meeting "national standards of excellence" in reading and math. ("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.)
Within weeks, state leaders in Maryland, Michigan, and North Carolina promised to join, and Mr. Clinton traveled to their state capitals to address their legislatures.
In the past month, West Virginia and Kentucky officials have promised to offer the assessments once the tests become available in the spring of 1999.
The government structure and political climate in those states allow state officials to require schools' participation in such tests.
But in Nebraska and some other states of the Midwest and West that take particular pride in their independence, state officials don't have the constitutional authority or the political inclination to issue a testing mandate, Ms. McCallister and other observers say.
If Mr. Clinton is to succeed in his goal of signing up every state, he and his aides will need to persuade local school leaders in states such as this one that the tests will give them results they otherwise couldn't obtain.
More importantly, federal officials will have to prove that participation in the tests will not lead to a federal takeover of community schools as some Nebraskans fear.
"We have been talking to people in a number of Western states who--particularly once they are assured it's voluntary--think it's a good idea," said Michael Cohen, Mr. Clinton's chief adviser on the national testing initiative.
Mr. Cohen declined to specify which states White House aides are negotiating with, but he acknowledged that they have not been in touch with Nebraska's leaders.
Other states in the region clearly share the Cornhusker State's devotion to local decisionmaking.
Nebraska, Iowa, and Wyoming are among a handful of states that don't require schools to offer a state assessment, according to a 1996 report from the Council of Chief State School Officers.
"If a state doesn't mandate a state assessment, that would be an indicator" that it won't be interested in the national test, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver, Colo.-based consortium of state policymakers.
Still, the president is optimistic that his testing plan will sell here and across the nation.
Speaking in West Virginia last month, Mr. Clinton said he believes every state will participate in his national test when it is first offered in 1999. ("Clinton Hopes Test Proposal Would Be Only the Beginning," May 28, 1997.)
For Nebraska to be a full participant, local officials from metropolitan Omaha to the rural plains will need to be courted.
"What local control in Nebraska means is families and communities come first," said Douglas D. Christensen, the state commissioner of education.
That doesn't necessarily mean communities won't participate in Mr. Clinton's assessment plan, he added.
Their love affair with independence cools in the face of a solid argument.
If federal officials can convince a community that scores on the national test will identify 4th graders' reading problems and 8th graders' math struggles, they may win over some of the fiercely independent rural areas in the western half of the state, Mr. Christensen said.
On the other hand, the specter of big government could be a hurdle too large to clear.
Mr. Clinton is promising the tests will yield individual test scores, raising fears that the federal government will keep children's scores on file and try to track them into careers based on how well they read in the 4th grade and add in the 8th grade.
Mr. Clinton's plan is designed to address those worries, Mr. Cohen said. The tests will be conducted so that only local officials will see the individual scores, he said.
The tests will be based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is highly regarded by educators and testing experts.
Private testing companies will license the right to sell the national tests with a battery of their own assessments.
Those companies will score the completed tests and forward the scores to the local officials who contracted for the tests.
Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor any other federal agency will be involved in scoring, calculating, or reporting test data, Mr. Cohen said.
"We will never see any individual test score, just like we don't see individual scores on the tests school districts give now," he said. "We are miles away from that."
Under such conditions, how many Nebraska school districts will take the plunge? Right now, it's too early to tell.
In Omaha, the state's largest district, leaders are interested in the president's proposal.
"It's an opportunity to see where we stand," said John Mackeil, the superintendent of the 45,000-student Omaha district, which enrolls 15 percent of the state's K-12 population.
"It's another means of measuring where we are. I would not see that as an invasion of local control," Mr. Mackeil said.
One school board member said the test could confirm what she suspects already.
"I think we'd stand up pretty well," said Ann Mactier, an Omaha school board member and a member of the state board of education. "I'd like to know about whether we do."
Other districts, however, for financial and political reasons, may not be enthusiastic.
State-mandated caps on property taxes are forcing school officials to pare budgets. Mr. Clinton's plan is to pay testing costs for the first year, but then charge between $6 and $8 a student every year thereafter.
"The average school board is gun-shy," said Mike Dulaney, the associate executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, based in Lincoln.
"They're concerned about keeping the doors open," he said. "I'm not sure there's a huge focus on testing."
The school systems with the best chance of joining Mr. Clinton's plan are in cities such as Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, and North Platte, Mr. Dulaney said.
Participation by those schools may be enough to satisfy Clinton administration officials.
"It doesn't bother me that everybody doesn't want to sign up" right away, said Ramon C. Cortines, the acting assistant secretary for educational research and improvement at the Department of Education. Mr. Cortines is organizing the team of testing experts writing the tests. (See story, page 18.)
"Over a period of time, people will want this," he said.