Hearings Draw Few, But Varied, Remarks

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While the Clinton administration and Republican lawmakers tussle over whether there will be voluntary new national tests, and assessment experts question their value in the classroom, folks at the grassroots level have been given several opportunities to weigh in with their views.

On behalf of the panel charged with creating the tests, its reading and math working committees last month held public hearings in San Francisco and Atlanta.

What the hearings revealed were the difficulty of building a consensus and the apparent lack of interest in the topic or notice of the sessions.

Sixteen people testified at the math hearing in San Francisco, and five testified at the reading session in Atlanta, with even smaller numbers sitting in the audience.

The meetings were designed to obtain input from the field and the public as the committees fashion test specifications that they are expected to recommend to the national test panel this month. Assembled for the Education Department by federal contractors, the committees are made up of educators and practitioners.

If political and philosophical differences don't scotch the administration's proposal, 4th graders will be tested in reading and 8th graders in math beginning in 1999.

In San Francisco, most of the teachers, mathematics professors, district administrators, parents, and others who testified offered support-- some of it qualified--for the draft specifications.

Chica Lynch, a teacher and chairwoman of the math department at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, Calif., called the draft "outstanding" and said it would complement her curriculum.

But some witnesses raised questions about the direction of the proposed test.

Richard Schoen, a Stanford University professor, said the draft test specifications did not "give proper emphasis to technical skills, particularly computational skills." He noted that such skills as determining ratios, probability, and exponents were absent from the draft, which focuses on problems that foster a more conceptual understanding of math.

Madalyn McDaniel, a parent from Atascadero, Calif., traveled some 200 miles to attend the hearing. She said the draft reminded her too much of the conceptual math curriculum in place in her local district. She, too, advocated an emphasis on basic computational skills, and she warned the committee to expect more opposition as the testing initiative becomes more visible.

Second-Language Issues

In both cities, discussion centered on students with limited proficiency in English.

But Yvonne deWright, a teacher from Atlanta who specializes in education for language-minority students, testified that evaluating many of these children only in English--as officials envision--would not give parents or the public an accurate picture of their reading comprehension.

"I understand that this committee is concerned about children becoming proficient in English," Ms. deWright said. "This committee should be equally concerned about the validity of the test."

Before the Atlanta hearing, the reading committee identified a need for more research on whether children who are still learning English should be allowed to respond to the test questions in their first language.

Playing a dual role, John J. Pikulski, a member of the committee, also testified as the president of the International Reading Association.

Although the IRA board has responded positively to several features of the draft specifications, he pointed out that not everyone was supportive. Some board members, he said, believe there is already too much testing of children--a situation that could result in conflicts between the national tests and state assessments.

Margaret Brooks, the director of testing for the Atlanta schools, came to the meeting to find out exactly when the test is going to be given because the district conducts a lot of testing in the spring--the same season pegged for the national tests.

Hearing notices were sent to local education and media organizations, but turnout was light.

David R. Mandel, a director at MPR Associates Inc., the Berkeley, Calif.-based consulting group hired by the Education Department to oversee the writing of the test specifications, said he thought public participation had been adequate, especially as the group is also receiving written testimony.

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