Bush Panel Members Express Support for a National Test

By Robert Rothman — December 05, 1990 3 min read

Washington--Members of President Bush’s advisory panel on education policy last week expressed strong support for a proposal to create a national test to measure student performance.

The draft proposal, presented by the panel’s chairman, Paul H. O’Neill, chief executive officer of the Aluminum Company of America, calls on the President to “cause to be developed” two national tests in reading and mathematics for students in grade 4. The tests should be ready for use in two years, the proposal states.

In addition, the plan urges Mr. Bush to create and issue regular “report cards” that would inform parents and school officials on how well existing state tests reflect the national education goals developed by the White House and the states’ governors.

Frank H.T. Rhodes, president of Cornell University, said it is essential to adopt the plan to ensure that the goals are achieved.

“We have national goals. They exist,” he said at the panel’s meeting here last week. “But they will be meaningless unless ... we can measure whether we are achieving them.”

William T. Brock, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, added that the proposal would also spur parents to act to improve their children’s academic performance.

“If we don’t tell kids, and parents of kids, how well they are doing and not doing, we’re lying to them,” Mr. Brock said. Currently, he added, “most parents think they’re doing okay. They’re not doing okay. They’re doing a stinking job.”

But Joe Nathan, senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said a national test would be a “tragic mistake and an astonishingly serious waste of money.”

Rather than create a new test, he said, the panel should consider new ways to motivate students.

American students are “the most over-tested and underachieving children in the world,” Mr. Nathan said. “We don’t need another test.”

The proposal the advisory panel considered last week--which is expected to be modified before the group decides whether to present it to President Bush--is the latest development in a debate that has risen quickly up the education agenda.

At least one other national group, the National Center on Education and the Economy, is also laying plans to create national examinations. That panel, following up on a report issued in June, is pursuing plans to create a system to enable teenagers to certify that they have attained the skills and knowledge needed for further training and the workforce. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

Mr. O’Neill said last week that his plan is aimed at gauging individual children’s performance against national standards.

But he cautioned that he is not in favor of having the federal government create a test or mandate that all students take one.

“I am not proposing federalizing or nationalizing what should be a state, local, and parental responsibility,” he said.

Existing state tests could be modified to serve the same purpose, suggested Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee.

“We’re talking about standards, not tests,” he said. “There might be lots of tests to those standards.”

Ann Lynch, president of the National PTA, however, cautioned that making a test voluntary is unlikely to lead to improved performance.

Many low-achieving students, she suggested, may simply opt out of taking the test.

“This is not going to help the parent who doesn’t give a rat’s whistle if her kid is as good as a kid in West Germany,” Ms. Lynch said.

The test would only improve achievement, she said, if schools and parents were clearly informed about students’ performance and who was responsible for improving it. As part of that effort, children may need to be assessed at school entry, rather than wait until 4th grade, she said.

Mr. O’Neill responded that the proposed test is intended to spot potential weaknesses and allow schools and parents to intervene to correct them.

“The purpose of testing is not to find fault,” he said. “It’s to have a reference point [to enable schools] to do something to save a child from going down the path of meandering failure.”

“I do not want to say that testing, by itself, can do anything,” Mr. O’Neill continued. “But it’s a tool you’ve got to have if you are going to do anything.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Bush Panel Members Express Support for a National Test