As Tests Get Slight Reprieve, Governing Board Forges On
Even as Washington's powerbrokers were deciding the fate of proposed new national tests last week, the board in charge of the exams sought solutions to certain problems they would have if the plan ever became a reality.
The National Assessment Governing Board last week started a series of congressionally mandated hearings to discuss the kinds of accommodations the tests proposed by President Clinton would offer to students with disabilities or with limited English proficiency. The exams would gauge 4th graders' reading ability and 8th graders' mathematics knowledge.
The board held its hearing Oct. 14 while Mr. Clinton and Republican congressional leaders haggled over a budget bill that would decide whether the testing initiative moves forward.
Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Education, said the agreement forged between the administration and Congress last year allows test development to proceed into fiscal 1999. But, he said, it does not authorize pilot-testing.
Moreover, researchers will continue studying whether national test questions could be embedded into some states' assessments, Mr. Smith said.
The text of an electronic message from Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., a testing opponent, confirmed that the governing board could move forward with "limited development,'' but would not be allowed to start pilot-testing next spring as planned.
Testing What Skills?
The information collected last week--like the rest of the work done by testing contractors over the past 14 months--may eventually be used to inform future assessments.
But, with the possible decision to stop development of the voluntary tests, the hearing appeared to be an exercise in which advocates simply repeated their strongly held views.
Thomas H. Fisher, the chairman of the governing board's design and methodology committee and Florida's assessment director, heard testimony here last week from advocates for disabled and LEP students.
Congress last year directed the governing board, known as NAGB, to hold the hearings.
At the portion of the NAGB hearing dedicated to LEP students, advocates urged Mr. Fisher to tell his colleagues that they are putting too much emphasis on testing English skills, not on testing literacy abilities in native languages.
Framing the central question, Deborah Short, the division director of English-language instruction for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington research and advocacy group, asked: "Is it a test in reading or a test in reading English?"
Most of the witnesses said students should be tested in their native languages, but one was adamant that every child should take a test of his or her English skills.
"Unrealistic accommodations fail to prepare students to become full and productive participants in society," contended Jorge Amselle, the vice president for education of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington group that opposes bilingual education and affirmative action.
"The reality for which schools must prepare students is one in which employers will not give them extra time or simplified language or assistance in their native language," Mr. Amselle said.
But most witnesses said the board shouldn't require students to take an exam they are destined to fail.
Under NAGB's testing initiative, it would begin pilot-testing next spring. During pilot-testing, the board had decided to offer LEP and disabled students the same extra help given on the National Assessment of Educational Progress--the federally mandated sampling of student achievement in core subjects that the governing board oversees. Those aids include extra time, large-print booklets, and scribes to record answers.
That approach set up a process that ensures any Spanish-language test would simply be an "unpiloted translation" of the English test, said Ambrosio Rodriguez, a legislative staff lawyer for the Los Angeles-based Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund.
Other NAGB decisions ignored the needs of LEP students, Ms. Short charged. None of the governing board's advisers is an expert on assessing students whose first language isn't English, she said.
The governing board has scheduled similar meetings in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Austin, Texas. Given last week's budget agreement, the board will hold those hearings as scheduled, said Lawrence W. Feinberg, a spokesman for the governing board.
Vol. 18, Issue 8, Page 22