National Testing Role in Measure Flawed, Falls Short, Critics Say

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WASHINGTON--By calling for a national council to "certify'' state assessment systems, the Clinton Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' would create a significant national role in testing policy.

But some testing experts argue that the new role could be a step backward, because, they say, the proposed council may be ill-equipped to make the kind of judgments needed to evaluate the assessments.

And others contend that the bill falls far short of the kind of national assessment system some advocates have envisioned. The Clinton proposal, these critics say, leaves the development of the assessments up to individual states without creating any mechanism to link them.

"My impression is that this bill is designed to prevent the emergence of a national testing system,'' said Diane S. Ravitch, who served as the assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement in the Bush Administration.

"They talk about high standards,'' added Ms. Ravitch, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, "but if there is no way to assess them, the standards are not going to survive.''

Michael Cohen, an aide to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, responded that the bill would help insure that state tests reflect the high standards that advocates of the national efforts are calling for. And he said the proposed council is capable of making such judgments.

But, he said, it does so in a way that does not prescribe to states what their tests should look like, and in a way that permits states to develop methods of linking their tests to one another and to the national standards.

"We can continue to work toward building a system, linked to national standards, that can get information on all kids,'' Mr. Cohen said.

Treading a Balance

Over the past few years, a number of educators and policymakers have called for some form of national curriculum standards and a system of assessments to gauge student performance against those standards.

Such proposals, however, have met resistance from many educators and members of Congress, who fear that a powerful national system could stifle local innovation and exacerbate inequities among schools.

President Clinton's education-reform bill, unveiled last month, appears to tread a balance between those two points of view. It would:

  • Create a 20-person National Education Standards and Improvement Council that would certify a "system of assessments'' presented by a state, if such a system is aligned with the state's content standards for its curriculum. The council's decision must also be ratified by the National Education Goals Panel.
  • Prohibit the council from certifying for five years any assessment that is used for "decisions regarding graduation, grade promotion, or retention of students.''
  • Require the council to develop over three years the criteria for certifying assessments.
  • Authorize $5 million in grants to states and local education agencies to help pay for the development and field-testing of new assessments.

If enacted, the bill could help spur the development of new assessments that improve teaching and learning, Mr. Cohen said.

"I envision a system rooted in states, linked to challenging standards, that creates assessments that are much more performance-oriented, much more authentic,'' he said.

Lack of Expertise

But some experts express concern that the plan would be unable to bring about such a transformation.

Although the legislation would set aside five places on the standards council for "education experts''--including experts in measurement and assessment, curriculum, school finance and equity, and school reform--it would not guarantee that such experts are qualified to evaluate the quality of assessments, noted Daniel M. Koretz, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation.

As a result, he said, the panel could approve assessments that fail to meet professional standards for validity, reliability, and fairness.

"My concern,'' he said, "is that you have 20 people, not one of whom knows anything about reliability, setting standards for judging assessments. It's not going to work.''

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, also warned that the proposed council may be overwhelmed by the responsibilities the legislation places in its docket. In addition to certifying assessments, the council is charged with certifying content standards, student-performance standards, and so-called "opportunity to learn'' standards.

"I think if you take a council of that sort that is not a full-time organization, that is made up of volunteers, and you load it up with too many complex issues, it will be paralyzed,'' Mr. Shanker said.

But even if the council can make sound judgments, its decisions could be overturned by the education-goals panel for political reasons, cautioned Monty Neill, the associate director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest.

Citing a precedent from the panel that governs the National Asssessment of Educational Progress, Mr. Neill noted that the National Assessment Governing Board went ahead with its plans to set standards for student performance even after the process was criticized as technically flawed.

The N.A.G.B. "was politicized from Day One,'' Mr. Neill charged. "That's a real danger.''

'Not the Nation's Business'?

Other skeptics contend that the proposed bill would do too little to spur changes in assessments, and may in fact impede them.

The five-year prohibition on certifying so-called "high stakes'' tests may deter some states from developing new assessments, Ms. Ravitch warned.

And the bill offers few incentives for states to move forward, argued Chester E. Finn Jr., the Education Department's research chief during the Reagan Administration and a founding partner of Whittle Communications' Edison Project.

"It appears to me that the executive branch and the legislative branch have concluded that Indiana is at risk, or Oregon is at risk, but the nation is not at risk,'' he said. "Or, if it is, it is not the nation's business.''

But Michael H. Kean, the director of public and governmental affairs for CTB/Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a major private testing firm, said it would take years for states to develop new assessments based on the emerging standards.

"This bill clearly says you've got to develop standards before you go out and measure against them,'' he said.

Lauren B. Resnick, the co-director of the New Standards Project, a coalition of 19 states that are developing an assessment system linked to high standards, also noted that many states are already moving on their own to develop new assessments linked to high standards.

"It's a mistake to look at [the Clinton plan] as if New Standards didn't exist,'' Ms. Resnick said. "We do exist. That means the movement is going forward, in a voluntary way, but in a strongly organized way.''

Over time, added Mr. Cohen, the new assessments could become a national system if researchers find a way to link the state assessments.

"To the extent the technical capacity to do that develops, and it turns out it's possible, if people want it, a national system will be created,'' he said. "Nothing in the bill prevents that.''

Vol. 12, Issue 33

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