National Testing Plan Appears Headed for Perilous End
Rep. Bill Goodling delivered an unequivocal prognosis last week on the fate of President Clinton's national testing proposal: "It's dead, dead, dead," proclaimed the Pennsylvania Republican, who has spent more than a year working to halt the president's plan to assess 4th graders' reading ability and 8th graders' mathematics skills. "There will be no national testing."
At the White House, however, Mr. Clinton remained optimistic about the survival of the program he once put at the center of his second-term agenda. Shortly before Mr. Goodling's declarative obituary Oct. 7, the president urged Congress to maintain the creation of the national tests, along with other pieces of his education itinerary.
"I hope there will be ... bipartisan action on the agenda for public school excellence that I offered eight months ago, an agenda that ... calls for voluntary national standards and voluntary exams to measure their performance," Mr. Clinton said at a ceremony where he signed amendments to the Higher Education Act.
But Mr. Clinton's appeal did little to change the conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill that the testing plan would not survive in Congress' final rush to complete its business by this past weekend.
Testing was likely to perish because "there's too much opposition to it," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who calls himself an advocate of some kind of national comparison of student achievement.
World War III
Conservatives and liberals aligned in a House vote to block the plan last year, only to be overruled later in a compromise with the administration that allowed test development to proceed while researchers and Congress continued to debate the idea's merits.
"It's not understood in Washington how important this is to the conservative movement," Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said of the issue. "For our base, this issue is World War III."
Conservatives would rather pay for other pieces of Mr. Clinton's school agenda than allow the proposed tests to move forward, Mr. Souder said in an interview.
The plan's fate was in doubt late last week as Congress rushed to complete the spending bill that would determine its future.
Despite the past opposition within the president's own party, some Democrats said Mr. Clinton's aides were expected to lobby vigorously to preserve testing along with other items on his education slate, such as proposals to hire 100,000 new teachers and spur $22 billion in school construction.
"They have a fairly long list, and they expect to get most of the list," said a senior Democratic aide involved in the negotiations.
The decision on testing was tied late last week to a mammoth fiscal 1999 spending bill that includes appropriations for most government agencies, including the Department of Education.
Rep. Goodling and others want the bill to prohibit the Education Department from spending any money to create the tests that Mr. Clinton proposed in his 1997 State of the Union Address.
In a similar bill last year, a compromise allowed a nonpartisan board to continue the tests' development while academics studied the feasibility of Mr. Clinton's proposal. ("White House, GOP Craft Agreement on Testing," Nov. 12, 1997.)
Mr. Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is in no mood to compromise now, and he is confident he won't need to. He said he has promises from Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., that they would insist on a ban on the new tests.
Testing or Reading?
Throughout last week, Mr. Goodling used every weapon at his disposal. He held up the final vote on a reading bill until the testing issue had been resolved, according to his aides.
He hoped that the administration would abandon the testing plan because it wanted the reading program to pass in Congress' final hours.
Until Oct. 7, Mr. Clinton had been silent on testing for more than a month. Two days earlier, he did not mention his plan at a White House ceremony staged to spell out his priorities during the last week of the congressional session. Likewise, at an Aug. 31 event, he hailed his plan for new teachers and school construction and did not push for his testing plan.
The silence was a stark contrast to one year ago, when Mr. Clinton dedicated a radio address and several public appearances to pitch his proposed tests.
The shift led opponents to assume that they could win the debate. Despite the confidence of Mr. Goodling, they did not know at the end of last week whether they would be victorious.
Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 22