Efforts To Create National Testing System Move Into High Gear

By Robert Rothman — July 31, 1991 8 min read
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The drive to create some form of national assessment system moved into high gear this month, as two groups began work on putting their plans into action and a third outlined its testing agenda.

Over the past few weeks, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a panel created by governors, the Bush Administration, and the Congress, began its deliberations by agreeing that national standards are desirable and creating a structure to see how they can be developed.

At the same time, the New Standards Project, a joint effort of the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, also got under way when about 120 educators from 10 states met in New York State to work their way through one of the chief technical obstacles to a national examination system.

And the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, a panel formed by former Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole, released a report outlining the competencies high-school graduates need, and began to consider methods of assessing such skills. (See story, page 11.)

Sponsors of the plans acknowledge that these actions are first steps, and that there are considerable substantive and technical questions that must be resolved before national testing becomes a reality.

They also note that the proposals face opposition from critics, including members of the Congress, who warn that a national test could thwart education reform by putting pressure on schools to focus on a narrow set of curriculum objectives.

Moreover, critics gained a powerful ally this month when the National Education Association voted at its annual convention to “oppose development or implementation of new federally mandated national tests and a national testing program as being contrary to the diverse interests and needs of children.”

But the sponsors say the progress over the past few weeks suggests that the issue has advanced rapidly since last year, when the idea of a national test--once virtually anathema within the education community--first began to be broached.

“Last fall, the issue was whether we are going to have some national assessment system and national standards,” said Lauren B. Resnick, director of the LRDC “Now, the issue is what kind.”

“The debate is still being framed by a yes-and-no question in some segments,” she added. “But in some other segments, the issue is more complex--what are the various options we have, what are sound ones.”

“That’s a big step forward,” Ms. Resnick said.

Enriching Instruction

Although the idea of creating a national testing system is not new, the issue has risen rapidly up the national education agenda during the past year.

In addition to the New Standards Project and scans, at least three other groups have proposed creating a national test or assessment system. They include:

The Bush Administration, which followed the recommendations of the President’s education-policy advisory panel and made national testing a centerpiece of the America 2000 education strategy. That plan, released in April, called for the creation of “American Achievement Tests” that would measure 4th, 8th, and 12th graders against “world-class standards” in five core subjects.

An advisory group, chaired by Ms. Resnick, to the National Education Goals Panel on ways to monitor the goal of improving student achievement, which has recommended developing a national examination system.

Educate America Inc., a private organization started by former Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey and led by Saul Cooperman, that state’s former commissioner of education, which has called for a mandatory test for all high-school seniors.

In addition, the Bush Administration has proposed expanding the National Assessment of Educational Progress to permit additional state-by-state comparisons, and to allow schools and districts to use NAEP items to compare their performance. Legislation to authorize such expansion is pending in the Congress.

Supporters of the national plans say assessments would improve education by giving parents and students better information about student performance than that provided by existing tests. At the same time, they suggest, the examinations could encourage students to strive for higher levels of achievement.

“We are thinking about a national assessment system that is individualized, aimed at parents, students, teachers, to enrich instruction,” said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, co-chairman of the new standards council.

‘Short-Circuit Reform’?

But critics warn that new assessments may not improve schooling, and could in fact be harmful.

“We can find ourselves in a situation where standardized testing becomes a driver as far as the curriculum is concerned,” said Robert F. Chase, vice president of the nea

Rather than spend money to create national tests, the federal government should support states’ efforts to improve their assessment systems, argued D. Monty Neill, associate director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a private watchdog group.

“If we do those things, and continue the discussion, we can find out an awful lot,” said Mr. Neill. “And we wouldn’t commit ourselves to what might not be a good model and short-circuit reform.”

Ms. Resnick responded that the sponsors should move ahead with their plans so that policymakers do not reach for a politically popular quick solution that might prove to be wrong-headed.

And, she said, the examination system should be coupled with other reforms, including improvements in curricula and teacher training, to ensure that all students are able to do well on the exams.

“If tests displace other school-reform efforts, I’m getting off the bandwagon,” she said at an annual assessment conference sponsored by the Education Commission of the States. “Tests alone are going to be a disaster.”

Moving Ahead on Standards

In developing their projects, the groups involved in national-assessment plans are proceeding down somewhat separate paths.

The council on standards and testing, a Congressionally authorized panel established by the goals panel that is expected to recommend the structure for creating the “American Achievement Tests,” got under way by naming a staff and holding its first two meetings.

Fulfilling its mandate of examining the “desirability and feasibility” of national standards and tests, the panel this month agreed to move forward on creating a mechanism for developing standards in five core subjects--English, mathematics, science, history, and geography.

The panel established five working groups composed of members of the panel and outside experts. Over the next two months, the groups will assess the status of standard-setting in each of the five subjects and determine what needs to be done to move the process along, according to the panel’s newly appointed staff director, Francie Alexander.

As associate state superintendent of public instruction in California, Ms. Alexander oversaw the development of curriculum frameworks in that state.

By creating a structure for organizing and assisting the standard-setting, predicted Governor Romer, “we can arrive at a consensus on standards in the country in one to two years.”

Mr. Romer added, however, that the panel had not yet agreed on whether an assessment system should be developed along with the standards, or whether it should wait until the standards are in place. But, he said, the panel is aiming to have such a system in place by 1993 or 1994.

“The form it will take, and the timing [of when] it will be available are yet to be determined,” he noted. “We’re aiming at [that date]; whether we’ll succeed, we can’t say.”

“But we don’t have eight-year timelines in our minds,” Governor Romer cautioned.

He also said that the panel will examine any changes in teacher education and curriculum materials that are needed to ensure that teachers can prepare students for whatever examinations may emerge.

“You can’t get the job done unless you look at the interior of the sandwich,” he said.

A Set of Options

The New Standards Project,meanwhile, is much farther along on the way to implementation.

Started last winter with grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the project has proposed developing an examination system in which local district and state assessments would be calibrated against a national standard.

At the meeting this month, officials from the districts and states participating as “partners” in the projects met to see if their assessment systems could be calibrated against each other, Ms. Resnick explained.

“The New Standards Project was literally launched this morning,” she said. “We took step one in changing the word [calibration] from a ‘Rorschach’ word to laying out a set of options that are clearly understood.”

The partners are expected to meet this week to begin discussing common learning outcomes in mathematics and English-language arts.

Ms. Resnick said that the project, though distinct from the standards council, is consistent with that panel’s aims and could serve as development work for what it is trying to accomplish.

“What we are hoping to be is influential by showing what can be done,” said Ms. Resnick, who serves on the council.

Fostering Debate

In addition to the standards council and the NCEE-LRDC project, the scans Commission also has laid plans for a national system of assessments.

In its report, issued this month, the panel outlined the basic skills, thinking skills, and personal qualities students should have, and pledged to develop ways to assess them.

Ms. Resnick, who also serves as the chairman of the scans commission’s assessment task force, said the panel would appoint a team that would over the next eight months survey the field for models of “forward looking” assessment methods, and come up with sample tasks it would try out informally.

“The intent is to be able to have enough examples of what a good assessment might look like, so that the conversation might be notched up,” she said.

Officials from Educate America, the group started by Mr. Kean and Mr. Cooperman of New Jersey, meanwhile, said they are concentrating on promoting the idea of national tests, rather than trying to build one.

Richard A. DiPatri, the group’s vice president, said the organization is “keeping options open” on whether it will create a test.

“From day one,” he said, “we were trying to foster debate, rather than get in the business ourselves.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 31, 1991 edition of Education Week as Efforts To Create National Testing System Move Into High Gear


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