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Strong Words Underscore National Testing Questions

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It was a blunt statement, the kind high-ranking Washington officials rarely make in public.

"I don't think [the national tests] will ever come about," Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith told an audience of educators, business leaders, and reporters on Feb. 6.

Marshall S. Smith

Mr. Smith uttered the words a day after 245 House members voted to end development of President Clinton's proposed tests on Sept. 30, unless Congress approves an extension.

"It was a strong enough vote that it looks like it will be tough to get the test authorized," Mr. Smith said during a panel discussion in Washington organized by the National Center on Education and the Economy. While not enough to override an expected presidential veto, the vote was "substantial" enough to put the testing plan's future in serious doubt, the No. 2 Department of Education official added.

John F. Jennings

Mr. Smith later tempered his remarks in a conversation with reporters, saying the challenges ahead were not insurmountable.

But his comments still raised questions that have been on the minds of those who are tracking the hotly debated initiative:

  • Are Mr. Clinton's proposed voluntary new tests in reading and math doomed or simply detoured by congressional opposition?
  • And, if the proposal is dead, what might emerge to meet state leaders' desire for individual student-achievement data that they can compare across state lines?

"It's probably a realistic assessment that they've got a tough road ahead of them," said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization created by state governors and business leaders to help push higher academic standards.

Testing Advocacy

"The political baggage at this point is too overwhelming" for the Clinton plan to survive, said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education and a former House Republican aide and assistant secretary of education under President Bush. "Unless somebody becomes a passionate advocate for it, it's not going to occur."

But others say support in the Senate for the plan to assess 4th graders' reading ability and 8th graders' math knowledge remains strong enough to maintain a filibuster against the House bill or defeat it outright.

"The only reason to say [what Mr. Smith said] is to stir the business community to put pressure on the Senate," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy here and a former aide to House Democrats. "Otherwise, it was a silly thing to say. They can win it in the Senate."

While the insiders differ about the prospects for the president's plan, they agree that the movement toward some form of national comparison of student results from standards-based assessments will continue, with or without the Clinton initiative. ("To Administration's Dismay, House Passes Test Bill," Feb. 11, 1998.)

For example, Cambridge, Mass.-based Achieve was formed to seek such a solution after the 1996 education summit between governors and business leaders. At a meeting last month, Mr. Schwartz said, officials from 19 states agreed to search for a way to insert a common battery of test questions into existing state assessments. The process--called embedding--would yield national results. ("States Set To Examine How To Make Testing Nationally Comparable," Jan. 21, 1998.)

"The attraction of that is they don't have to redesign their own assessment systems, and they don't have to add a whole new test," Mr. Schwartz said in an interview. "This could conceivably get them to the same end that the national test would be designed to do."

Another advantage, Mr. Jennings and Mr. Cross added, it that embedding would not be linked to the federal government, something that critics of the administration's plan have used to portray the proposal as amounting to a federal takeover of local curricula.

But embedding an extra set of questions into state tests would pose a difficult logistical challenge and might yield questionable results, some experts believe.

The national testing plan is "probably the best mechanism," Mr. Cross said. "It would produce the best results in the end with the cleanest data."

Other Challenges

Even if Achieve's work progresses over the next year, the development of the new national tests should continue past the Sept. 30 deadline set in the House bill, according to members of the National Assessment Governing Board, which now oversees the Clinton initiative.

Any test questions written under the independent board's contract with test developers could create a bank of questions that Achieve or another group could use for its own assessments, said William T. Randall, the chairman of the governing board's subcommittee that is overseeing the Clinton proposal.

It's important for the panel to keep working "so we can start the discussion--'Is embedding the way to go, or is a separate test the way to go?'--so we'll have some information about that rather than the emotions we have now," said Mr. Randall, a former Colorado education commissioner.

But it may be premature to have that debate, according to Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a private group that is working to promote high standards and related assessments.

"What is important is to have a national discussion about national, not federal, standards," Mr. Tucker said in an interview.

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Related Stories
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 the 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 the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families.
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