Assessment Conferees Question Clinton’s Testing Proposal

September 17, 1997 4 min read

Los Angeles

While not suffering mortal wounds, President Clinton’s proposal for national tests in reading and math did withstand multiple body blows here at a national conference of testing experts.

Sentiment among participants toward the planned voluntary tests for students in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math ranged from a wait-and-see attitude to predictions of a public-policy disaster. Attendees at the Sept. 4-5 gathering included state and school district assessment directors and academics who study testing.

Organizers of the annual conference at the University of California, Los Angeles’ National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, or cresst, said they had guessed right about interest in the national tests when they prepared months ago to focus on the topic.

Mr. Clinton called for the student tests, to be given beginning in 1999, in his State of the Union Address in February.

Ruben Carriedo

The testing proposal has become a political hot potato, drawing criticism from members of Congress from both parties as well as from civil rights groups. But the Clinton administration is fighting hard for the plan. A hastily arranged Capitol Hill hearing called by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., on the plan kept Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, from addressing the conference. (“Senate OKs Reworked Testing Plan,” in This Week’s News.)

Participants here questioned whether the tests would continue beyond the first year--in which the federal government plans to pick up the cost--and wondered what the tests could tell educators about student achievement that a state assessment or an off-the-shelf standardized test don’t already do. (Experts Question Value of New National Tests,” Sept. 3, 1997.)

San Diego’s testing director told conferees he could not see joining the 15 other urban districts that have signed on to take the tests, given his already crowded docket of student exams, which includes state tests, the Stanford Achievement Test, and the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Ruben Carriedo, an assistant superintendent in the 135,000-student San Diego city schools, said his district gives about 137,000 tests to more than 120,000 students in grades 2-12 each year.

For him to consider taking part in the Clinton proposal, he said, “the national tests would need to make my life better [and] take the place of others.” So far, he said, there are too many unknowns for him to be convinced it would satisfy either condition.

Assistance offered to students with mental disabilities who take Kentucky’s statewide assessment seems to give an artificial boost to their scores--even, in some cases, above those of students without disabilities, a researcher told conference attendees.

Daniel Koretz, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corp.'s Washington office, called into question the quality of the scores obtained from disabled students who were given accommodations to ensure their participation. Assistance offered on the exam included having the test read to students or having the directions paraphrased. Mr. Koretz studied results from 4th, 8th, and 11th graders taking the 1995 Kentucky Instructional Results Information System.

The fact that accommodations were used frequently, especially for 4th graders, “itself raises questions about possibly inappropriate use,” according to Mr. Koretz’s report. Among 4th graders, 81 percent of the students with disabilities were given at least one accommodation, and 66 percent received more than one.

In addition, the average scores of learning-disabled 4th graders provided with certain combinations of accommodations were well above those of students without disabilities. The average reading scores of mildly retarded 4th graders who had the test read to them, dictated their responses, and had the directions paraphrased were only slightly below the average for nondisabled students and slightly above that average in science.

Such results are, Mr. Koretz said, “unreasonable ... given that retarded students by definition have generalized cognitive defects.”

Permitting students to dictate their responses proved to be the accommodation that boosted scores the most across grade levels. That kind of help was given, for instance, to more than half of the 4th grade students with learning impairments or mild mental retardation who were tested.

Kentucky has been on the leading edge of the national movement to include students with disabilities in large-scale tests, and most students with disabilities did take part in the Kentucky assessment, Mr. Koretz said.

His findings, which are to be distributed through CRESST and could have serious implications for states following in Kentucky’s footsteps, are not meant to disparage that state’s conscientious efforts at inclusion, he said in an interview last week.

“It’s not an indictment of Kentucky,” Mr. Koretz said. “They just uncovered some hurdles before anybody else did.”