Group Unveils Plan for National Test for All High-School Seniors

By Robert Rothman — February 06, 1991 5 min read

Washington--A new national organization last week unveiled plans to develop a national achievement test for all high-school seniors, and to ask the Congress to fund it and make it mandatory for all students in public and private schools.

The plan by Educate America Inc., which was founded by Saul Cooperman, former commissioner of education in New Jersey, is the latest in a series of proposals that have moved the issue of national assessment rapidly up the education agenda.

In contrast to the other plans, Mr. Cooperman said, the Educate America proposal would spur school improvement by providing a way to gauge the performance of every student, school, school district, and state against the national goals for student performance.

At the same time, he said, it would provide for the first time an incentive for students to attain those goals.

“Real change is based on knowing who is succeeding, and who is not succeeding, and basing reform on that,” he said at a press conference here.

Mr. Cooperman added that a Congressional mandate would “send a message throughout the nation that there is a crisis,” and that federal funding for the effort--estimated at $90 million a year--is appropriate.

“Sooner or later, we have to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “We spend $230 billion on education, and a tenth of a percent of that for evaluation. That’s amazing.”

But a leading test critic called the plan wrongheaded, and said he hoped the Congress would reject it.

D. Monty Neill, associate director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, said the test proposal represents a step backward at a time when states and school districts are developing more complex methods of measuring student performance and encouraging instruction in the higher-order thinking skills that such assessments measure.

“If you wanted to concoct a plan to undermine education reform, you would start with a test like this,” Mr. Neill said.

In presenting its proposal, Educate America joins a growing list of organizations that have called for the creation of some form of national examination.

In recent months, for example, the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh have received $2.45 million in foundation grants to develop an examination system, and a majority of President Bush’s education-policy advisory panel have endorsed the idea. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, chairman of Educate America’s board of directors and a member of both the President’s panel and of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which led to the NCEE-LRDC project, said the various efforts are “complementary.’'

The Educate America plan “melds in rather well with the advisory committee and the commission on skills,” he said. “There is a coming together on the proposals.”

Under the plan, the group would contract with commercial test publishers to develop and administer 90-minute tests in six subject areas: reading, writing, mathematics, American and world history, science, and geography.

The tests, which would include multiple-choice and performance-based items, would be administered in the fall to all 12th graders in public and private high schools.

The results of the tests--which would be scored on a 0-200 scale reflecting “not competent,” “minimally competent,” “competent,” “highly competent” and “distinction” levels of performance--would be provided to students and their parents, as well as to employers and postsecondary institutions chosen by the students.

Mr. Kean said the test scores would provide parents a more accurate assessment of their children’s schools than is available from the current panoply of tests administered in elementary and secondary schools.

“Eighty percent on polls say schools aren’t good enough,” Mr. Kean pointed out, “but when asked ‘What about your school?’ 80 percent say, ‘Not our school.”’

“If our frame of mind is that [low levels of educational performance] are not affecting our schools,” he asked, “how can we get any improvement or change?”

In addition to helping hold schools accountable for student performance, the national test would also encourage students to boost performance, Mr. Kean said.

Currently, he said, students lack an incentive to master the curriculum because employers seldom look beyond a diploma to determine what students know or are able to do.

Richard A. DiPatri, Educate America’s vice president and a former assistant commissioner of education in New Jersey, said that the inclusion of performance-based components, such as requiring students to write essays or use calculators to solve math problems, would ensure that students understand what they have learned in order to do well.

Mr. DiPatri declined to specify how much of the tests will be performance-based, but cited the National Assessment of Educational Progress as “state of the art” in the use of such alternative forms of measurement. In the 1990 NAEP assessment, about 30 percent of the items were performance-based, and the rest were multiple-choice.

But Mr. Neill of FairTest said the Educate America plans make it unlikely that the tests would be anything but multiple-choice. The group has said that the tests would cost $30 per student, he noted, too low to include many alternative measures.

“They’re joking,” he said. “You cannot do it.”

Mr. Cooperman said that in the coming months, he and his organization would canvass the country to build a “groundswell” of support for the plan before presenting it to the Congress. But he predicted that he would encounter resistance from educators who fear that a national test would usurp local control over education.

Christopher T. Cross, assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement, said he is wary of federal involvement in prescribing curricula.

“If they can separate funding from involvement in content, that’s one thing,” Mr. Cross said. “Content has to come out of subject-matter fields, not the federal government.”

He added that he has “problems” with mandating that all students take the test.

“There needs to be some discussion with the states,” he said. “It can’t just be proclaimed.”

Jack F. Jennings, an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee, said the growing interest in national tests is almost certain to push the concept onto the Congressional agenda. He noted that the subcommittee on elementary and secondary education has tentatively scheduled a hearing on the issue for this month.

The Educate America proposal “seems to be adding to the indicators pointing towards having a debate over whether there should be a national test,” Mr. Jennings said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Group Unveils Plan for National Test for All High-School Seniors