Feds Position National Tests On Fast Track

By Millicent Lawton — August 06, 1997 11 min read

Role for NAGB?

Moving on an especially fast track, President Clinton’s voluntary national tests in reading and math are taking shape and gaining support even as members of Congress try to stop the effort.

Draft blueprints for the tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math have been crafted by national committees of educators assembled under a Department of Education contract, and the final versions are due next month. But the panels are still wrestling with some difficult issues, such as whether students should be given leeway in how long they take to complete the tests.

The expeditious preparation and a vigorous campaign by Mr. Clinton and his surrogates--which some observers see as pre-emptive moves against opponents of the plan--appear to be paying off. The president announced late last month that 15 of the nation’s largest school districts plan to give the exams, joining six states that have officially committed to administering them.

But some in Congress, conservative groups, and a number of prominent experts have serious misgivings about the testing program itself or worry that the tests will lack the independent oversight needed to insulate them from partisan politics.

Goodling Leads Attack

The most serious attack was to have come last week from Rep. Bill Goodling, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The Pennsylvania Republican, who maintains that the creation of such tests demands explicit authorization from Congress, had planned to introduce an amendment to the House education appropriations bill that would have prohibited use of fiscal year 1998 Education Department funds for the testing program. Start-up costs for the program are estimated at $22 million through the coming fiscal year.

Late in the week, however, floor consideration of the bill was postponed until September, but not before Mr. Goodling drew others to his cause.

Rep. Bob Schaffer of Colorado sent a letter last week to fellow House Republicans, urging them to back the Goodling amendment. The letter was accompanied by one from 11 conservative family and education groups, including the Christian Coalition, the Eagle Forum, the American Association of Christian Schools, the Family Research Council, and the Home School Legal Defense Association.

In that letter, addressed to House leaders, the groups object to the tests in part because they say they could lead to more centralized control of education.

The voluntary new tests are to be based on the 4th grade reading and 8th grade math tests that are part of the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress. The national assessment, given to a sampling of U.S. students since 1969, is the only nationally representative, continuing assessment of what American students know and can do in a number of core subjects.

President Clinton proposed the new tests in his State of the Union Address last February. The tests are to measure and report on individual students’ performance, which Congress has prohibited NAEP from doing. They would be given for the first time in 1999.

Mr. Clinton hopes the tests will help states and districts hold students to uniform and high academic standards.

Role for NAGB?

Even some of those who support the testing initiative have been concerned about both the speed with which the tests are being put together and who is overseeing their creation. Just six months after the national tests were mere words in Mr. Clinton’s speech, the Education Department is about to award one or more contracts this month for the writing of the exams.

The test specifications that will guide the work of the winning bids are being drafted, under a contract from the department, by the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and a California consulting firm, MPR Associates. Two national committees of educators and practitioners assembled by the state chiefs and MPR are working separately on reading and math specifications. They are making recommendations on how the tests should look to a third group created under the contract, the national test panel.

That 16-member body is made up of state education officials, teachers, administrators, scholars, representatives of national education organizations, and a business member. The group is to vote on the test-specification recommendations at a meeting here next month. Two final public hearings on the specifications are slated for this week in San Francisco and next week in Atlanta.

Some suspect the administration’s haste is calculated to get the testing program well on its way before substantial grassroots or congressional opposition emerges.

Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, denied such a motivation in an interview last week. He said that the two years from inception to the planned 1999 administration of the tests allow “plenty of time” for opponents to mobilize. Once the administration decided to launch the tests, he said, there was “no point in shilly-shallying around.”

Meanwhile, the issue of who governs the national tests was on the mind of Diane S. Ravitch, a senior fellow at both the Brookings Institution and New York University, when she resigned from the national test panel last month.

Ms. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President Bush, and others believe the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent, bipartisan panel now overseeing NAEP, should be supervising the creation of the testing program, not the national test panel.

Ms. Ravitch said last week that she should not have agreed to serve on the panel in the first place. She would like to see the tests go forward, she said, but added that “there should be bipartisan, independent governance of this whole activity.”

Another former assistant education secretary, Chester E. Finn Jr., who served under President Reagan and is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, agreed. “It’s being run directly under the thumb of the executive branch with no independent governance,” he asserted.

Also last week, a letter that William T. Randall, the chairman of the assessment governing board, sent in June to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley became public. In it, he argues that the governing board should oversee the national testing program. The use of the national assessment as the basis for the new tests essentially means the initiative is part of NAEP, Mr. Randall wrote.

“For the sake of the integrity, effectiveness, and coherence of both the national assessment and the voluntary test initiative,” the letter says, " logic and experience argue for the governing board to be the policy body for the voluntary national test initiative.”

The board, known as nagb, is prohibited by law from involvement in projects other than the national assessment. But supporters of its involvement in the new tests argue that the governing board’s role could be expanded in the upcoming reauthorization of the legislation covering NAEP.

Mr. Smith left the door open to that possibility last week. “We may end up doing it that way,” he said. But he said Congress has not yet called reauthorization hearings, and with a full plate of legislative activity, " it’s not clear to us they’ll act on it this year.”

He said the administration is “actively considering” having members of NAGB act as advisers to the national-test initiative. “We’d like to see them in a slightly more formal role” than they have now, he said.

Test Time

While the national tests are based on the national assessment, a new blueprint is needed, Education Department officials have said, mainly because the test has to provide results for individual students. Students taking a NAEP subject test are exposed to only a portion of the whole exam.

At a meeting here last month, the national test panel appeared to have settled on having each 90-minute subject test be given in two 45-minute segments over two days. In contrast, for the math and reading exams of the national assessment, a student’s test runs 50 minutes and is given on one day.

Other central features of the new tests were undecided as of the panel’s July meeting. One is whether students should be limited to the 45-minute period. The math committee, in a presentation to the full test panel and in written recommendations, advised that students be given a flexible amount of time in order to have a full chance to show what they know in that subject.

A draft document of test specifications produced by the math committee says the test would be designed so that the “vast majority” of students can complete each testing session in 45 minutes. But, as long as a student " remains productively engaged in completing a test,” the individual should be allowed to continue, the report says.

The reading committee, however, seemed willing to keep the testing to 45 minutes per session. Committee members especially noted 4th graders’ limited attention spans.

Mr. Smith called the use of flexible test time “a very reasonable thing to want to do,” and said he was open to its use for both subject tests. Both Mr. Smith and members of the test-specifications panel mulled the possibility of designing the test sessions to be completed in 45 minutes, but allowing students a total of 60 minutes.

Since the launch of the Clinton testing initiative, it’s been an open question how many states or districts might choose to participate. Last month’s announcement about urban districts taking part--including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles--swelled the potential number of participating students significantly; the total number of students in the 15 districts is about 3.4 million.

Slow Start for States

But states have been slow to sign on. And in announcing the participation by big-city districts, Mr. Clinton chided the governors. “They’ve been dragging their feet,” Mr. Clinton told a July 25 gathering of elementary school principals in Arlington, Va. The president continued to try to sell his testing plan when he addressed the National Governors Association meeting last week in Las Vegas.

The participation of the urban districts may have ramifications for how the tests are crafted--particularly on the issue of language. Accommodations in that area, in turn, could undercut support from more moderate and conservative quarters.

Representatives from the big-city districts, who met with Education Department officials late last month, worry that the reading test is to be given only in English, according to Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group representing large urban districts. Many of the districts have large proportions of students with limited English proficiency.

Similarly, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus argued in a letter to Mr. Clinton last month that giving the reading test only in English would exclude 3 million LEP students. They urged the development of tests in students’ native languages, assistance for limited-English students taking the tests in English, and a commitment to communicate the purpose and use of the national test to the parents of LEP students.

Mr. Casserly said last week that he understood the Education Department was still open to a reading test in languages other than English.

But Mr. Smith was definitive last week: “It is a reading test in English.” He said his department was considering helping others create reading tests in languages other than English, but those would not be part of the national test.

Still, Mr. Smith said, the national tests will try to be a trailblazer in accommodating test-takers who have limited English skills or disabilities. For instance, the 8th grade math test is to be offered in a bilingual English-Spanish version.

Measuring How Far Students Can Go in Math

Following is a sample mathematics question that might be included on the voluntary national math exam for 8th graders that the Clinton administration is promoting.

Jorge claims to be able to drive about 45 miles per gallon of gasoline on his motorbike. He shows you this record of his gasoline purchases to prove it.

Date Mileage Purchases
8/17/96 103 Full tank
8/21/96 312 5.1 gallons to fill tank
8/24/96 381 1.9 gallons to fill tank
8/28/96 598 4.6 gallons to fill tank

Jorge explains: “I bought the bike on August 17. It already had 103 miles on it and a full tank of gas. Since then, whenever I buy gasoline, I always fill up the tank. Then I write down the odometer reading and the number of gallons that I put into the tank.’'

Check out Jorge’s claim based on the records above. How many miles per gallon is Jorge really getting on his motorbike? Show all of your work below. Make sure to label your answers and show your calculations.

The correct answer is 42.7 miles per gallon.

SOURCE: Voluntary National Math Test Specifications Committee.

Signing On

The following states and urban districts have officially agreed to give their students President Clinton’s voluntary national tests in reading and mathematics:






North Carolina

West Virginia



Broward County, Fla.




El Paso, Texas

Fresno, Calif.


Long Beach, Calif.

Los Angeles

New York City

Omaha, Neb.


San Antonio


A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week