Riley Faces Panel's Questions on New National Student Tests

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Even as the Department of Education began soliciting proposals from test contractors last week, House lawmakers both criticized and praised the Clinton administration's plan for new national student tests in reading and math.

Members of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families used an April 29 hearing to do publicly what they and others have been doing behind the scenes for weeks: grumble about the plan and the administration's decision to put it on a fast track without seeking explicit congressional approval.

Under the plan, the Education Department is to create, for the first time, annual voluntary national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math that would yield results for individual students.

The content of the tests, to be given for the first time in 1999, is to be based on the subject-area tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP, mandated by Congress and given to a sampling of students since 1969, provides a broad picture of student performance but is not allowed to generate individual results.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, the sole witness called to testify before the subcommittee, said the proposed tests are meant to set high expectations for students--something state-run tests often fail to do, especially when compared with the rigorous content of the current national assessment. "Parents deserve to know how their students stack up, no matter where they live or move," Mr. Riley said.

'Great Reservations'

Last week, the Education Department also released the request for proposals for the writing of test items and the administration of pilot and field testing, among other tasks. The proposals are due June 24, and the awards are to be made in September.

In his remarks to the subcommittee, Mr. Riley also said that the Council of Chief State School Officers, along with California-based MPR Associates, has won a competitive bid to write the larger blueprint for the national tests.

It will cost about $22 million over this year and next to develop the tests, Mr. Riley told the lawmakers.

While Democrats on the panel mixed support with some concerns, strong complaints were registered by Republican Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee and sits on the subcommittee. He said he had "great reservations about individual tests."

"Eventually," he said, "they become nothing more than opportunities to rank schools. I don't see the purpose of ranking schools."

National tests yielding individual results should not be given the go-ahead until teachers are thoroughly prepared to use the results to help students, said Mr. Goodling, a former superintendent and teacher.

Mr. Riley replied that states and districts would decide how the test results would be used, though he said he views the results primarily as a tool to help parents, teachers, and students.

A point of contention between members of Congress and the Education Department continues to be whether the department has the legal authority to launch such a testing program. ("Cost of Test Proposal Up to $10 Million In First Year," April 2, 1997.)

At the hearing, Mr. Riley said the department is launching the testing program under the authority of its $40 million fund for improvement in education.

But Rep. Frank Riggs of California, the Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he favored a slower, more deliberate approach.

And Mr. Goodling was blunt: "Politically, I don't think it's very smart to move ahead with this program without the consent of Congress."

A spokesman for Mr. Riley said later in the week that the administration intends to involve Congress, as early as this year, in determining such issues as who should oversee the testing program once it is up and running.

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  • Read Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's April 29 statement before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families Committee regarding voluntary national tests for reading and math. Mr. Riley was the sole witness to testify before the subcommittee.

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