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National Tests, Title I at Odds on Language

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Washington

The Department of Education has told states that they would be able to use President Clinton's proposed national tests to help fulfill federal testing requirements for the Title I program. But congressional critics and some Title I experts say the department's stance is inconsistent with existing policies and is an aggressive attempt to promote the testing program.

At issue is whether the proposed voluntary tests of 4th grade reading and 8th grade math would square with key 1994 revisions to Title I proposed by the Clinton administration and approved by the then-Democrat-led Congress. Those changes seek to hold the disadvantaged children served by the program to high academic standards.

Department Letter

"The national tests ... can be an important resource to states in carrying out Title I's vital goal of holding students who participate in Title I to the same high standards expected of all students," says a policy statement distributed to state officials by the department's elementary and secondary education office last month.

But the 1994 law requires that Title I assessments accommodate the language needs of students with limited English skills--an accommodation the proposed new national reading test would not make. What's more, the new national tests are unlikely to be aligned with state academic standards, as is required for Title I programs, said Phyllis P. McClure, a Washington-based Title I consultant to states and school districts. The policy mismatch "doesn't help a state in a way the feds should be helping out a state," Ms. McClure said.

While department officials say the Sept. 16 memo was drafted in response to inquiries from Title I administrators, congressional critics say it was an attempt to recruit support for a testing program that so far has the endorsement of only seven states and that still must be approved by Congress.

"This demonstrates how desperate the department is to gain acceptance for these flawed federal tests," Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., said at an Oct. 9 news conference.

The Title I debate adds to the list of issues putting the future of Mr. Clinton's testing plan in doubt. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said late last month he was stopping development of the tests until Congress decided their future.

By last week, however, an ad hoc national test panel had given the Education Department its final recommended blueprint for the tests, including sample test items.

Mr. Ashcroft, meanwhile, is rallying support among Senate Republicans for a House-approved plan to block further funding for the tests, which the administration has been paying for with existing discretionary funds. Before the House voted, the Senate agreed to allow the testing under the direction of a bipartisan, independent panel.

A House-Senate conference committee may meet again this week to discuss a compromise. Earlier talks yielded no progress. ("GOP Plays Hardball To Block National Tests," Oct. 15, 1997.)

Not Exactly Parallel

In the Sept. 16 policy statement, Gerald N. Tirozzi, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said that the national tests would provide proper assessments for "most children" and that states could use the new assessments "in part" to comply with Title I.

The 1994 law requires that states test Title I students to ensure that they are meeting academic standards. The testing must begin by the 2000-01 school year.

In advising states, the department needed qualifiers such as "most" and "in part" because the policies behind Title I and the national tests aren't exactly parallel.

Under the roughly $8 billion Title I program, which aims to boost the achievement of disadvantaged students, assessments must be given "to the extent practicable, in the language and form most likely to yield accurate and reliable information." But the new national reading test would be available only in English.

Ms. McClure said that the language problem probably disqualifies the reading test as an ingredient for Title I testing in any part of the country with a high number of limited-English-proficient students. School districts in Los Angeles, Houston, and El Paso, Texas, have reneged on promises to give their students the proposed new reading test because it won't have a bilingual version.

But other experts say that the language issue should not deter districts from offering the reading test as part of their Title I assessments. The Title I law says the program's testing must include "multiple measures" of assessment. That means the new test could serve as just one of several pieces of a state's testing puzzle.

"The statute is ambiguous enough that you could debate this for a long time," said Ellen Guiney, who helped write the Title I reauthorization law as a Senate Democratic aide and is now the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools. "Part of [the testing] could be in Spanish, but part of it could be in English as well."

State Standards

In addition, schools could use the national reading test to see if they are successfully teaching English to LEP children, according to Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education.

Another possible discrepancy between the Clinton tests and Title I assessments involves the academic standards that states are required to use to measure Title I students' progress. Title I allows states to set their own standards.

The national tests, however, would be aligned with standards set for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the existing federal program that assesses a sampling of students in core subjects. Mr. Tirozzi wrote in the Sept. 16 document that "the [national] tests generally will be aligned with most'' state standards.

But Mr. Ashcroft and other conservative opponents argue that such policies would be the first step toward a federal curriculum.

"Today, use of the tests for Title I students is permitted," Mr. Ashcroft said this month. "It is only a matter of time before the tests will be required."

The proposed national test specifications are now on the Web at www.mprinc.com/nationaltests.

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