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Senate OKs Reworked Testing Plan

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Washington

The Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to allow President Clinton's testing plan to advance, while House members predicted they would muster similar support for their plan to halt it.

The Senate would transfer oversight of the testing program from the Department of Education to a nonpartisan panel, as recommended by Republican critics and approved by administration officials. The proposal passed, 88-12, after almost a week of negotiations between Republicans and the White House.

But talks broke down in the House, where testing opponents predict they will have the support of close to 300 of the chamber's 435 members for an amendment to halt work on the voluntary new assessments. The House delayed its vote on a testing amendment until this week.

The two chambers' differences will have to be settled in a House-Senate conference committee in the coming weeks. Reaching a compromise may prove difficult, however, because both houses have significant support for their positions.

Complicating matters further, final legislative language on Mr. Clinton's plan for national tests of 4th grade reading and 8th grade math skills will be included in the fiscal 1998 appropriations bill for the Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments. That means the testing program's fate will be decided as members trade for votes using funding for a wide variety of programs as bait.

What is clear, though, is that Mr. Clinton will veto any language similar to that which the House is almost certain to adopt. "It's not going to become law one way or another," the White House press secretary, Michael McCurry, said of the likely House provision last week, several days before the congressional votes. "He won't sign the unsignable."

Senate Compromise

The veto threats may mean a conference committee on the appropriations measure will likely lean toward the Senate version to avoid a confrontation with the president.

But given the House's strong opposition to national testing, GOP leaders may let Mr. Clinton reject the funding bill and try to override his veto. If the compromise bill included enough funding for education programs to satisfy Democrats, testing foes might be able to retain the 290 House votes they need to overrule the president. The Senate also would need a two-thirds majority of its 100 members to accomplish that.

Preliminary counts by the House Republican whip's office show "a great majority" of Republicans, most black and Hispanic Democrats, and possibly another 20 Democrats favor halting testing, according to Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who is leading the opposition to Mr. Clinton's testing plan.

Three former Education Department officials from Republican administrations announced on the eve of the Sept. 11 vote in the Senate that they would support the president's plan only if the National Assessment Governing Board were in control of it. The nonpartisan panel sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"We're trying to create a third path," said Diane S. Ravitch, a senior fellow at both the centrist Brookings Institution and New York University. "We're saying fix it. It can be fixed. We think there should be national testing."

Ms. Ravitch, a political independent who was an assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, was joined by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and former Assistant Secretary Chester E. Finn Jr., both of whom worked for President Reagan.

The Senate--led by conservative GOP Sens. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and several Democrats speaking for the president--adopted most of the triumvirate's recommendations the next day with support from all Democrats and all but 12 Republicans.

The amendment would grant the testing panel, known as NAGB, "exclusive authority over all policies, direction, and guidelines" for the tests Mr. Clinton wants to offer in the spring of 1999.

That power would include the ability to rewrite the contract the Education Department signed last month with a coalition of testing firms for the preparation and scoring of the tests and reporting of the results. ("Riley Offers Test Control Concession," Sept. 3, 1997.)

Ms. Ravitch and her colleagues said the Clinton administration is exerting too much control over the tests, leaving them open to criticism on partisan grounds.

The testing plan has been on a fast track since Mr. Clinton unveiled it in his State of the Union Address. The administration has maintained that it can proceed with the tests without congressional authorization.

The White House approved the Senate amendment before last Thursday's vote. "We're in agreement with a strong NAGB that oversees the national test," Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said.

Opposition Holding Firm

While the Senate's changes eased the fears of pro-testing Republicans, they will not assuage Rep. Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Mr. Goodling has waged a campaign to stop the Clinton plan, calling national testing unnecessary and a waste of money. His position did not change after the Senate's action, his spokesman said.

The Pennsylvania Republican won support for his amendment by recruiting members from opposite sides of the political spectrum: conservative activists and urban liberals.

Conservatives argue the tests would ultimately lead to federal control of local curriculum decisions. Big-city liberals and some civil rights groups object because they say the tests would be unfair to minority and poor children who haven't had the same educational advantages as students in more affluent schools. Liberal critics also argue that the reading test should be offered in other languages in addition to English.

Even if the assessment program survives congressional scrutiny, some of the seven states and 15 urban school districts that promised to participate in it are getting cold feet.

Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, is uncomfortable with developments since he agreed that his state would use the new tests, his spokesman said last week.

Mr. Engler hoped the national test questions could be given as part of his state's assessment. Administration officials had promised that Michigan could do that, but now they say that won't be possible, according to John Truscott, Mr. Engler's press secretary.

"Unless there are some changes, we would consider not using this test," Mr. Truscott said last week.

The other GOP governor to sign up for the program was former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, who recently resigned to pursue his nomination to be ambassador to Mexico.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has backed out of the reading portion of the test because it will be offered only in English. The district will still offer the math exam because it will include a version for Spanish-speaking students, who make up almost half of the district's 670,000-pupil enrollment, according to Brad Sales, the assistant to the superintendent.

Some assessment experts, meanwhile, are questioning the need for and quality of the planned tests. At a conference on testing this month at the University of California, Los Angeles, attendees questioned virtually every aspect of the proposed national tests. (See related story, page 10.)

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Voluntary National Tests, from the U.S. Department of Education, explains this initiative and provides draft materials on both the the 4th grade reading test and 8th grade math test.
  • National Assessment Governing Board. Learn about the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only ongoing, national test of academic progress. Read a self-critical plan for redesigning the testing program, which they acknowledge "provides too little information, too infrequently, and too late."
  • Read Richard W. Riley's testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families on voluntary national tests for reading and math.
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