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Assessment Board Wrestles With Test Mandate

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Arlington, Va.

As President Clinton highlighted their efforts in a recent weekly radio address, members of an independent panel delegated by Congress to study his proposal for new national tests began grappling with many of the questions that have surrounded the plan since its announcement 10 months ago.

How will the voluntary tests of reading and math be used? Can such use be monitored? What does "voluntary" participation mean? What is the best design for the tests? Can the new testing program, which is to be based on the frameworks of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, be linked to naep without damaging the reliability of either?

But even as the National Assessment Governing Board climbed into the driver's seat on the issue, Mr. Clinton continued, in his radio talk Nov. 22, to gun for rapid execution of the testing plan.

Members of the 26-member governing board gathered here Nov. 20-22 for their first quarterly meeting since Congress handed them exclusive authority over the plan for 4th grade reading and 8th grade math exams. The bipartisan group is made up of governors, state legislators, scholars, state schools chiefs, a principal, teachers, and parents. Concerns about the tests voiced during the meeting reflected some of the worries that have divided both educators and Capitol Hill lawmakers since Mr. Clinton proposed them in his State of the Union Address last February.

Since 1988, the governing board, known as nagb, has set policy for the national assessment, which is the only continuing, nationally representative survey of student achievement in core academic subjects. NAEP, mandated by Congress and given since 1969, is administered by the Department of Education. The assessment is prohibited from yielding results on individual students, which is a main selling feature of the proposed new tests.

Adam Urbanski, a board member and the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, told the board that teachers, for instance, are alarmed about the possibility of being penalized based on the test results.

"The whole notion of the uses of the test is not only sensitive, but, in some respects, explosive," the union leader said. "These are unfounded fears, but they are a result of a lack of information." Mr. Urbanski, who is also a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, urged the board to spread the word that it was aware of such issues, and members seemed to agree.

The board chairman, Mark D. Musick, was careful to make clear to members that even though NAGB was given responsibility for the tests, it has yet to take a position on them. "The board has not endorsed the voluntary national tests," he said, "and the board has not opposed the voluntary national tests."

An 'Optimistic' President

Board members indicated they were well aware of how politically charged the issue of national exams is. And they could not escape the political arena during their meeting.

In his radio address, recorded the previous evening before an audience of NAGB members, Mr. Clinton projected his own enthusiasm for a quick implementation of the tests onto the board's outline for how it intends to proceed.

He said the board members have "just presented me with their plan for developing national tests--including a pilot test next fall." But, in fact, a statement submitted earlier that day to the White House by Mr. Musick was far less specific.

In his statement, Mr. Musick said: "The board will seek to complete all of the work directed by Congress by Sept. 30, 1998, so that there can be pilot and field testing later." Indeed, the governing board is only authorized to decide whether to continue, change, or cancel the current testing contract--awarded when the Education Department was overseeing the tests--by Feb. 11.

Mr. Musick said in an interview last week that the president was taking the "optimistic view" with his remark about pilot testing. Such testing could occur next fall, Mr. Musick noted, if Congress approves the controversial plan.

"It's probably more a matter of emphasis, or a matter of the president assuming everything is going to go exactly according to schedule," said Mr. Musick, who is also the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a 15-state consortium based in Atlanta that works to improve education.

Ravitch Joins Board

But Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House education committee and the chief congressional opponent to the testing plan, had a different take.

"From our point of view, it's the Clinton administration at work one more time trying to get print [media coverage] for one of its education initiatives even if it's far, far from reality," Mr. Diskey said.

Governing-board members made up about half the audience for the Nov. 21 audiotaping of the radio address in the Roosevelt Room at the White House--an event closed to the press. They then posed for photographs with Mr. Clinton, who had declined an invitation to address their public meeting. There was no formal discussion between the board and the president about the national tests, said Mary R. Blanton, NAGB's vice chairwoman and a North Carolina lawyer.

"There was certainly no arm-twisting or any kind of advocacy" by Mr. Clinton, she said.

In the radio address, Mr. Clinton announced that Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley had appointed three new members to the board, including Diane S. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President Bush. A senior research scholar at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Ms. Ravitch has been a supporter of national tests as a way to raise national academic standards. But she had faulted the fact that the independent board had not, until now, been given responsibility for overseeing the effort, leaving the plan open, she said, to political interference.

Ms. Ravitch was traveling and unable to attend the NAGB meeting, but the other new members did. Also named to three-year terms were Lynn Marmer, a lawyer and former teacher who is the president of the Cincinnati school board, and Jo Ann Pottorff, a former school board member who is a Republican legislator in Kansas.

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