To Administration's Dismay, House Passes Test Bill
Opponents of national testing last week won the first of what could be several battles in the new session of Congress over the future of what was once President Clinton's top education priority.
The House voted, 242-174, to approve a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the leader of the testing opposition, that would require Congress to "specifically and explicitly" authorize any test development beyond the current fiscal year.
The bill is needed, Mr. Goodling argued, because Mr. Clinton and the Department of Education are acting as if test development will continue when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. One example, the Pennsylvania Republican said, was Mr. Clinton saying in his State of the Union Address last month that there would "soon" be voluntary new national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics, as he first proposed in 1997.
"We have never authorized anything beyond the development of the test this year," Mr. Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an interview. "He keeps saying we've given him carte blanche to go ahead."
The vote left some in the administration pessimistic.
"It was a strong enough vote that it looks like it will be tough to get the test authorized," Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, said late last week at a forum in Washington sponsored by the National Center on Education and the Economy.
Democrats said Mr. Goodling's bill was a political move that undoes the compromise reached last year that put an independent board in charge of the testing initiative.
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley was critical. "Today's House vote is a partisan attack on the painstaking compromise achieved several months ago to give local schools and states the opportunity to participate in voluntary national tests in reading and math," he said in a statement.
Twenty-five Democrats joined 217 Republicans in voting for the bill. Only two Republicans voted against it.
No Senate debate is scheduled on a similar measure sponsored by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., according to a spokesman for the senator.
But Mr. Goodling and his allies are heartened that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the federal government should not be involved in testing when he delivered the nationally televised GOP response to the State of the Union Address.
If the Goodling bill is sent to Mr. Clinton, White House officials have told House Democrats that the president would probably veto it, according to a notice distributed last week by Rep. David E. Bonior, D-Mich., the House minority whip. But the debate over testing is destined to continue in other bills.
The House education committee will soon start hearings to consider the reauthorization of the National Assessment Governing Board, the nonpartisan panel now in charge of the test. The board, known as NAGB, recently revised the test-development contract the Education Department negotiated with a coalition of groups. The changes will push back the starting date for giving the tests until at least 2001. ("National Panel Delays Clinton's Proposed Voluntary Tests," Jan. 28, 1998.)
Before deciding how to address national testing in the NAGB reauthorization, Mr. Goodling said, he will wait for a report from the National Academy of Sciences detailing whether existing standardized tests could yield data that compare individual students' achievement the way Mr. Clinton's plan would.
The report will not be ready until June, which puts his committee behind schedule for passing a NAGB bill by the October deadline for Congress to adjourn. "We'll be lucky if we get anything enacted," he said in the interview.
Without a completed NAGB bill or the enactment of the legislation the House passed last Thursday, the tests' fate is likely to be settled in the bill establishing fiscal 1999 education spending. That's where testing language was adopted last year.
In the appropriations process for the current fiscal year, the testing language delayed the passage of the annual spending measure because both sides refused to budge.
They eventually brokered a testing compromise that both sides claimed as a victory. Now, Democrats are saying Congress should let last fall's agreement stand and instead start debating school construction, class-size reduction, and other issues that Mr. Clinton promoted in his Jan. 27 address to Congress.