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War of Words on Testing Moves to Next Stage

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The debate over national testing may be the perfect example of Washington spin. No matter what happens, both sides find a way to declare victory.

The public relations war will enter its next phase this week when a House committee meets in Granada Hills, Calif., to start a series of hearings on the issue.

Rep. Bill Goodling

Aides to the Education and the Workforce Committee say the Jan. 21 event will explore the questions at the center of last year's extended debate over President Clinton's proposal for voluntary new national tests of 4th graders' reading skills and 8th graders' math abilities. State school officials and parents will testify about their desire--or lack thereof--for tests that would produce individual student scores based on national standards and their fears--or lack thereof--of adding another assessment to classrooms already heavily tested.

Civil rights activists will tell the panel why they believe the tests will be unfair to minorities.

The California event will be the first of many hearings and events that will define this year's debate, according to Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for the committee.

Whose Victory?

From July till November of last year, Congress and the Clinton administration fought over how to proceed on the president's testing initiative. The House voted to stop work, while the Senate agreed to let the tests proceed but to give policymaking control to the National Assessment Governing Board.

Rep. Howard P.

An eventual compromise prohibited any field- or pilot-testing until at least Sept. 30 of this year and gave the governing board, known as NAGB, authority over the contract the administration had negotiated to develop the tests. The resolution also required the National Academy of Sciences to examine existing assessments and determine whether they could yield data that compare student scores with a national standard.

The administration declared the deal a victory because it allows work to continue, albeit at a slower pace than the president would like. "We fought awfully hard and finally succeeded in getting the Congress to agree that we ought to go forward with national standards and testing to see whether our children are meeting those standards," Mr. Clinton told reporters last week.

Testing foes, on the other hand, say they won because the pilot-testing--a vital step in test development--has been stopped. If they are unhappy with NAGB's work, they will seek to extend the prohibition for another 12 months starting Oct. 1. ("White House, GOP Craft Agreement On Testing," Nov. 12, 1997.)

"Whether this country shall have any new 4th and 8th grade national tests, shall be determined in the future, and will be subject to the reports and recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences ... and the will of Congress," Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the testing plan's most vocal opponent, wrote in a Dec. 12 letter to NAGB.

To support their arguments, Mr. Goodling, who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, and his allies plan to explore testing in monthly hearings throughout 1998. Most of the events will be in Washington, but others will be held in committee members' home districts to hear from local educators. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., who is a senior member of the education panel, represents the suburban Los Angeles community where the first session will be held.

The Senate has not scheduled any testing hearings, according to Joe Karpinski, the spokesman for the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Goodling's Legislation

In addition to hearings, Mr. Goodling intends to push a bill early this year that would prohibit work on the tests beyond the current fiscal year without "explicit and specific legislation" passed by Congress. He won't wait for the NAS studies to do so, Mr. Klatt said.

Mr. Goodling's committee also is expected to consider national testing's fate when it writes a bill to reauthorize NAGB and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state-by-state sampling of student achievement that the governing board already oversees.

If Congress fails to pass both of those bills under its busy election-year schedule, Mr. Klatt said, Mr. Goodling intends to fight to extend the field-testing and pilot-testing prohibition for fiscal 1999, which begins Oct. 1.

Opponents of the president's plan believe they will prevail because last year they assembled a coalition in the House that included almost half of the chamber's Democrats to halt development.

But the administration is confident that public support shown in opinion polls will buoy its arguments. For example, a 1997 poll found that 77 percent of Americans would endorse national academic standards.

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Web Resources
  • "National Testing," on the House Education and the Workforce Committee Web site, includes the latest version of the bill, amendments, and statements from Rep. Goodling.
  • Read "I Will Filibuster to Stop National Testing," Sen. Ashcroft's message explaining his opposition to a national testing plan.
  • "Voluntary National Tests," from the U.S. Department of Education, explains this initiative and provides draft materials on both the 4th grade reading test and 8th grade math test.
  • Read Richard W. Riley's testimony on voluntary national tests for reading and math, given at an April 29, 1997, hearing of U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families.
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