In Letter to Riley, GOP Lawmakers Seek Details of Testing Plan

By Millicent Lawton — March 12, 1997 3 min read


Congressional Republicans let Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley know last week that they have no intention of being left out of the loop when it comes to the Clinton administration’s proposals for new national tests.

President Clinton’s plan for voluntary national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics constitutes “a major change in federal education policy,” said a March 5 letter to Mr. Riley from four prominent House lawmakers, including Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., who heads the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education.

But the congressmen complained that, apart from “a few brief mentions,” they had yet to receive “any official guidance on the administration’s plans” on testing. Congress needs more information to give the plan the scrutiny it deserves, they said. “In our view,” they wrote, “proposals like this must be backed by a consensus on the Hill and in the country if they are to achieve success when implemented.”

The letter also asked Mr. Riley under what legal authority the administration thinks it can proceed without input from Congress. Attached to the letter was a list of 27 more questions that the legislators had about the testing plan. The chairmen of two education subcommittees, Reps. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Frank Riggs, R-Calif, also signed the letter.

President Clinton announced the testing plan in his State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress last month. The unprecedented math and reading tests would first be given in 1999 and provide scores to measure the progress of individual students. (“Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan,” Feb. 12, 1997.) and (“Political Shift Emboldens Clinton To Urge Tests,” Feb. 19, 1997.)

Until last week’s missive from the GOP lawmakers, Department of Education officials were moving ahead with the testing plan as though they needed no affirmation from Capitol Hill. For example, they said last week that they expected to issue a request for proposals for the testing contracts as early as next month and begin awarding them in September. The initiative has a first-year budget of $7 million.

A spokesman for Mr. Riley said the secretary would try to respond to all the questions by the Republicans’ March 19 deadline.

Rick Miller, Mr. Riley’s press secretary, also said that the administration had held several briefings on the testing issue for members of Congress since the State of the Union speech.

Moreover, Mr. Miller maintained, the Education Department has determined it has the legal authority to pursue national testing under the office of educational research and improvement’s fund for the improvement of education.

Outside the Beltway, meanwhile, it looked as though Mr. Clinton was gaining support from GOP quarters. On the occasion of a speech by the president to the Michigan legislature last week, Republican Gov. John Engler announced that his state would be the second, after Maryland, to use the proposed national tests.

NAEP Model for Math

In another development, administration officials have decided that the new national 8th grade math test would be based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and not on an international exam of math and science, as previously proposed.

The news came as the Education Department held public hearings here to offer details on the tests and elicit comment and ideas.

As recently as late last month, department officials had said that they were planning to base the 8th grade math test on the framework of the math exam given in 41 countries as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

After a private meeting Feb. 19 with experts on testing and on math and reading, administration officials were persuaded to change their minds, said Gary Phillips, who is heading the national testing initiative for OERI.

The experts argued, and the department later agreed, that NAEP was a preferable framework for the test because it takes into account widely accepted math standards and because it is based on a U.S. consensus about math rather than agreement among different countries, Mr. Phillips said.