Throughout the fall, opponents of President Clinton's national testing plan such as Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., repeatedly said the proposed 8th grade mathematics exam would be based on "fuzzy math."
In a recent conference call with reporters, Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, countered that that was "nonsense ... kind of fuzzy nonsense."
The national tests would be similar to exams given in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which are widely acclaimed as challenging, Mr. Smith said.
"I don't think any reasonable person would call [NAEP problems] fuzzy math," Mr. Smith said. "There are many problems that are based on straightforward computation."
But Mr. Ashcroft isn't backing down. When asked to respond, his spokesman cited a test question proposed by a panel of experts convened by the Department of Education.
Students are asked: "What of the following is true about 87 percent of 10?" They aren't required to compute the answer. Instead, they are given choices such as "It is less than 9," or "It is between 9 and 10."
The Education Department never formally adopted those specifications. Under a compromise reached in Congress, the National Assessment Governing Board will decide whether to accept the recommendations or scrap them.
Whether next year's debate on testing will be fuzzy or focused is still an open question.
A senator who led the charge in the Senate to preserve the president's national testing proposal is questioning the administration's dropout strategy.
Sen. Jeff. Bingaman, D-N.M., wrote President Clinton recently requesting that the Education Department release a report it commissioned two years ago on Hispanic students who leave school before graduation. The report is already one year late, he wrote in a Nov. 17 letter co-signed by Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas.
Earlier this year, Mr. Bingaman introduced a bill to appoint a "dropout czar" to oversee a new federal program and existing federal efforts to persuade students to stay in school.
--DAVID J. HOFF firstname.lastname@example.org