Lawmakers Balk at Deadline for Test Development

By Robert Rothman — October 02, 1991 4 min read
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WASHINGTON--The four Congressional members of a panel on educational standards and testing moved last week to put the brakes on a plan to establish a national assessment system by the 1993-94 school year.

The plan had been tentatively approved in August by the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, a group of 32 educators and policymakers charged with advising the Congress and the National Education Goals Panel on the desirability and feasibility of national standards and assessments.

In a letter released at a meeting of the council here last week, however, Senators Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, and Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, and Representatives Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, and Bill Goodling, Republican of Pennsylvania, argued that the panel had acted too hastily.

Before setting out to create a new testing system within two years, the letter states, the council should both consider whether such a system would be “beyond reproach with regard to its reliability, validity, and fairness,” and fully explore the uses to which such a system might be placed.

“Our greatest concern,” Mr. Goodling said, “is the idea that somehow or other we must come up with something by 1993-94.”

Mr. Goodling also rejected the notion that the national effort must move quickly to keep ahead of states such as Colorado--home of the council’s co-chairman, Gov. Roy Romer-that are creating their own standards and assessments.

“If Colorado moves ahead, and makes a mistake,” Representative Goodling said, “they can blame their Governor, not me.”

At a press conference after the meeting, Governor Romer responded that the legislators’ concerns did not ‘q?other me a bit,” and said he has asked task forces to prepare papers on each of the nine issues raised by the lawmakers.

Mr. Romer also noted that the full panel planned to revisit all its decisions before writing a final report, which is due in December.

“Our objective here is to try to reach as much consensus as possible, as broadly as possible,” he said.

Student and School Standards

Established by the Congress in June, the council has already agreed that national standards are desirable and that a national assessment system, rather than a single national test, should be established. (‘See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991 .)

As part of an effort to define those concepts, the council also named task forces, consisting of members of the council and outside experts, on standards, assessment, and implementation.

In a preliminary report, presented here last week, the task force on standards stated that standards should be established beth for students and for schools.

For students, the draft report states, the standards would include achievement standards, or statements of the knowledge and skills students should possess, and performance standards, or the level of performance they must attain.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and a member of the task force, used a sports analogy to explain the two types of standards for students. The former, he suggested, is the equivalent of saying that every diver needs to perform a back flip, while the latter is the equivalent of requiring divers to earn a score of 6 on the back flip.

The task force also proposed that standards be set for schools’ capacity for delivering high-quality content.

That idea brought an objection, however, from Roger B. Porter, President Bush’s assistant for economic and domestic policy, who argued that such standards could be a step backward at a time when educators and policymakers are focusing on judging schools on the basis of student outcomes rather than inputs.

But Marshall S. Smith, dean of the graduate school of education at Stanford University and chairman of the task force, said it would be unfair to hold students accountable for meeting standards if they had not had an opportunity to be exposed to the content.

“Look first at performance standards,” he said. “If students are performing at a very high level, go no further.”

“If not,” he continued, “it is incumbent upon us to look at the delivery in schools. We should determine if schools are failing on that account, as many are [now] failing.”

Testing Now or Later?

Members of the council generally agreed that standards should be set as quickly as possible, and the task force proposed that some quasi-governmental body, such as the National Academy of Sciences, be created to oversee the process.

If such a body could be put in place quickly, standards in mathematics and writing could be in place in six to eight months, Mr. Smith said, while adding that standards for other subjects would take longer.

Members of the panel disagreed, however, over whether a testing system should be developed along with the standards, or whether it should wait until the standards were in place.

“After standards are established, we should give states, textbook publishers, and others time to develop curricula to match them,” Senator Hatch said.

But Mr. Finn argued that the test itself could drive the changes in curricula and instruction that need to be made.

“We don’t say, ‘Don’t give a cholesterol test before everybody is on a cholesterol-lowering diet,’ “he said. “We don’t say, ‘Don’t give a physical-fitness test before everybody is on an exercise program.’”

“We should set a standard, and say what ought to be,” Mr. Finn continued, “and give an exam and see where everybody is.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1991 edition of Education Week as Lawmakers Balk at Deadline for Test Development


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