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National Panel Delays Clinton's Proposed Voluntary Tests

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The voluntary national tests that President Clinton had proposed students take beginning next year will not be given until 2001, an independent panel decided late last week.

But it is possible the testing plan could face further delays or be scrapped altogether.

The contractor that had agreed last year to take on the development of the tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math is to decide late this week whether it still wants the job now that the panel, the National Assessment Governing Board, has significantly revised the contract.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., and his House committee also are expected this week to mark up a bill introduced last November that would prevent the creation of the tests without the explicit approval of Congress. Mr. Goodling, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, has been one of the chief congressional opponents of the plan that Mr. Clinton first proposed in his State of the Union Address a year ago.

Opposition from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress and others prompted the Clinton administration to put the tests on hold last year, delaying their administration until 2000 or later. Congress later passed and the president signed legislation that removed authority over the tests' creation from the Department of Education and gave it to the governing board. ("Assessment Board Wrestles With Test Mandate," Dec. 3, 1997.)

The 26-member bipartisan panel is made up of governors, state legislators, scholars, state schools chiefs, a principal, teachers, and parents. The panel sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only ongoing, nationally representative measure of what students know and can do in core academic subjects.

The proposed national tests are to be modeled as closely as possible on the existing national assessment, according to the legislation directing the board to oversee the tests. But, unlike that assessment, the new tests are to provide scores to individual students--expressed in terms of NAEP's "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" levels of achievement.

Same Month, Grades

In a special meeting here last week, the governing board, known as nagb, gave final approval to the statement of work that is to guide the contractor in the writing of the tests. That puts the board on track to meet the Feb. 11 deadline imposed by Congress for the board to decide if the contract should be kept, revised, or junked. The American Institutes for Research, based in Washington, heads the seven-member contractor consortium.

As part of its revisions, the board adopted a testing calendar that calls for pilot- and field-testing to occur in March 1999 and 2000, respectively, pushing the first full administration of the national tests to March of the following year.

That schedule would help the board make sure the tests were as accurate and reliable as possible, board members said. Those features are critical because the tests need to be consistent from year to year and because a student's performance on the national tests is supposed to be comparable to how he or she would have done on NAEP.

The full board endorsed the recommendation of a board committee to give the pilot and field tests, which are essentially rehearsals for the real thing, at the same time of year and to the same grade levels as they would be in 2001.

"If it takes an extra year to do it, it's worth it to do it right the first time out," Mary R. Blanton, the vice chairwoman of the board and a lawyer in Salisbury, N.C., told her colleagues.

With its decision, the board was "placing quality issues above all else," Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the governing board, said after the vote on the contract. Mr. Musick is also the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a 15-state reform consortium based in Atlanta.

But Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement issued after the board vote: "We do not agree with NAGB that it's necessary to delay the initial administration of the tests for one year."

However, he added, "we are pleased that we are on track to having the first-ever national tests in the basic skills and to giving parents and communities the tools they need to make sure children master the basics."

'Sense of Urgency'

Mr. Riley was not the only disappointed one.

During the meeting and before the vote on the contract, Mr. Musick said two members who were unable to attend the meeting, Democratic Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado and Norma Paulus, a Republican who is Oregon's superintendent of education, had called to say they did not want to see the tests put off. Mr. Romer asked in his message that the board delay its vote until its next meeting in March.

In an interview, Mr. Musick said he thought the two elected officials were worried about losing momentum for the plan. But, as Mr. Musick put it, "without assurance of quality, momentum won't be worth much."

Ms. Paulus, reached in Oregon after the governing-board vote, said that while she had not heard board members' reasons for endorsing the delay, "it seemed to me that we ought to be able to do it sooner than that. I'm frankly fearful that in the time allowed that it might be derailed."

Oregon has new academic standards and a rigorous state assessment, and just last week, Ms. Paulus said, a state legislator asked her "exactly how we're fitting in with the national scene."

"So I feel a kind of sense of urgency," she said about the crafting of national measures of individual student performance.

Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Mr. Goodling, took the opposite view last week. "We're pleased that the national test is clearly delayed another year," he said. "We have felt for some time the national test is simply a bad idea."

Mr. Musick acknowledged that NAGB finds itself in an awkward position on a politically charged issue. "The board is not presuming that Congress is going to approve [national testing], yet we are charged with taking some action until Congress does act."

Maintaining Enthusiasm

That uncertainty does not aid the decisions that the organizations in the contractor group must make now about whether to agree to the revised contract or walk away from what is potentially a five-year, $65 million job, said Archie LaPointe, the director of the center for assessment at the American Institutes for Research.

"It's more problematic than if this were a sure thing," he said.

Not all of the consortium members may be enthusiastic about sticking with the group, Mr. LaPointe said. "Some of them had to be talked into this partnership" when it was formed last year, he said. As publishers of other standardized tests, those members saw the national tests as a potential threat to their bottom lines. Indeed, Mr. LaPointe said, publishing associations lobbied against the testing plan last year.

At a public hearing the day before the Jan. 22 nagb meeting, a committee of the governing board heard a handful of educators and policymakers raise familiar concerns about the content of the proposed national exams and whether students with limited English proficiency would be allowed to take the reading test in their native languages.

But the nationally publicized hearing drew just eight people to address the panel--four each on reading and on math--with about another 30 observers in the audience.

Web Only

Web Resources
  • 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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