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Odyssey of a National Test: From Napkin to Classroom?

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Arlington, Va.

Five days before President Clinton proposed them in his Feb. 4 State of the Union Address, the plan for new national tests was born on the proverbial cocktail napkin in a Washington tavern.

The tale of the diminutive forest product's pivotal role became public here at a Nov. 21 meeting of the National Assessment Governing Board. The independent, bipartisan panel was recently charged by Congress with exclusive authority over the president's plan for voluntary new national exams in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math.

Gary W. Phillips, an associate commissioner at the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, sketched out the national tests' odyssey for board members just as he had first sketched out the plan on a napkin with his coffee at the Dubliner, a Capitol Hill watering hole.

As Mr. Phillips told it, his boss, NCES Commissioner Pascal D. Forgione Jr., informed Mr. Phillips on Jan. 30 that the White House was interested in the feasibility of a national exam and was seeking their expertise. The statistics center runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only ongoing survey of student achievement in core academic subjects. But Congress prohibits NAEP from yielding results for individual students--something Mr. Clinton's proposed tests would do.

Over lunch that day, Mr. Phillips roughed out some parameters for a new national test: It should be based on the national assessment and be 80 percent multiple-choice, among other features. After briefing Mr. Forgione and drafting the proposal, he got a call the next morning saying the statistics center had "the green light."

That afternoon, Mr. Phillips took part in a standing-room-only meeting with Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education. "Suddenly, Mike started describing the national test," Mr. Phillips recalled incredulously, in the same terms that he had set down on the cocktail napkin. "The rest," Mr. Phillips said, "is now public history."

--MILLICENT LAWTON

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