Riley Offers Test Control Concession

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The Clinton administration offered a concession last week on its plan for new national tests, but it may not have gone far enough to satisfy the plan's critics and head off a congressional challenge.

In a little-noticed but significant policy turn, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley proposed that the Department of Education surrender control of the 4th grade reading and 8th grade math tests to the National Assessment Governing Board, an existing bipartisan, independent testing panel. Congress would have to approve the proposal.

The move was in response to recent complaints from prominent critics, including some supporters of national testing, who said the process risked becoming politicized if the department remained in charge. ("Feds Position National Tests on Fast Track," Aug. 6, 1997.)

But the new proposal did not silence the complaints or persuade congressional foes to drop plans for votes in the House, and possibly the Senate, that could stop work on the voluntary tests the administration wants to start giving to students in 18 months.

The development of the tests is too far along for the governing board--which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress--to have much say, according to Diane S. Ravitch, a senior fellow at both the centrist Brookings Institution in Washington and New York University.

Advisers selected by the Education Department already have written test specifications, and department officials have selected a coalition of test publishers to write the assessments, Ms. Ravitch pointed out. An assistant education secretary in the Bush administration and a leading advocate of national testing, Ms. Ravitch has called the initiative "an historic step" in the right direction but criticized aspects of the administration's plan--notably the lack of an independent governance structure.

Ms. Ravitch went so far as to resign from an advisory board the Education Department formed to develop the test because the governing board wasn't given authority soon enough.

"What concerns me is all the decisions have been made," Ms. Ravitch said in an interview last week.

Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, said the department planned to hand the tests to the NAEP governing panel, known as NAGB, but was waiting for Congress to reauthorize NAEP this year. When it became clear that Congress would not do that this fall, the department decided to submit a "quick fix" to broaden NAGB's authority, he said.

By getting involved now, he added, the governing board would decide what accommodations would be made for disabled children and how results would be reported to the public. The panel also could revisit decisions over how to adapt the NAEP tests and its achievement levels--decisions the department and its advisers have made.

A 'Ridiculous' Expense

But like Ms. Ravitch, the chief congressional critic of the testing plan was not swayed by Mr. Riley's proposal for enlisting nagb, which the education secretary first announced on the CBS news program "Face the Nation" on Aug. 24 and reiterated in a news release two days later.

The new testing program is "one of the most ridiculous expenditures of $90 million that I can imagine," Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who appeared on the Sunday talk show with Mr. Riley, said in an interview last week.

Mr. Goodling is co-sponsoring an amendment to the House's pending fiscal 1998 appropriations bill that would bar the department from spending any money on the initiative, the top item in President Clinton's 10-point plan for school improvement announced in February.

The congressman has actively sought support for the amendment and believes he will win when votes are tallied either this week or next.

Mr. Goodling, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, expects the 32-member Congressional Black Caucus to follow the lead of Rep. Major R. Owens, an African-American Democrat from New York City who co-sponsored the amendment.

He is also asking Sen. Dan Coats to propose the amendment when the Senate considers its education appropriations bill. The Indiana Republican has not decided whether to do so, his spokesman said last week. The Senate was scheduled to take up its appropriations bill this week.

The debate will pit people usually on the same side. Most members of the Black Caucus represent urban areas, but 15 urban school districts already have promised to use the new national tests.

Urban officials said they will participate so they can see how their students measure up against national and international benchmarks. The city school leaders won a quid pro quo from the Clinton administration to revive a $5 billion school construction initiative, according to people familiar with the agreement.

A few days before Mr. Owens decided to co-sponsor the anti-testing measure, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund released a two-page position paper opposing the testing initiative.

The civil rights group argued that results from the national tests would be used to place "poor and minority children in low-end classes and low-curriculum tracks, which ultimately limit opportunity and deny the lifelong benefits of a quality education."

Mr. Smith said the department would investigate any such abuses. "That's why the office for civil rights exists," he said, referring to the Education Department office that investigates alleged discrimination in federally funded education programs. "It's incumbent on us to make sure that the system works."

Good Start Seen

Even if the Education Department's new position does not satisfy all critics, it is a step in the right direction, some say.

The National Assessment Governing Board was created to set policy for NAEP when the test expanded in 1990 to collect state-by-state samplings of student performance.

The bipartisan board comprises state education chiefs, governors, educators, and members of the public. It sets the NAEP achievement levels and oversees the tests' development and administration. The Clinton administration plans to use the NAEP design and achievement levels to create tests that can give scores for individual students.

Despite Ms. Ravitch's assertion that NAGB would have little power over the new tests this far along in the process, its leaders say they are confident they would be able to wield influence.

The board's members could review the work of the department and its contractors, said William T. Randall, the NAGB chairman and a former Colorado education commissioner, to see if they were preparing a test that matches NAEP's challenging achievement levels. There would be enough time for changes if the work did not meet the board's standards, he said.

"The board could have a fair amount of influence over the test," added Mary R. Blanton, the panel's vice chairwoman and a lawyer from Salisbury, N.C.

State Views

While politicians and academics fight over the tests' future, state officials are wondering what it all means to them.

At a one-day meeting the Education Department convened on Aug. 19, governors' aides, state school chiefs, and assessment directors showed a mixture of reluctance and enthusiasm for the project. Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, and West Virginia, as well as the 15 urban districts, have already promised to participate.

Officials from other states had specific policy questions, including: Do we want to give this test when local superintendents already tell us they spend too much time testing? Could we use the national test to complement data we already collect from our own assessments? If we join the national effort, how could we avoid criticism that we're taking the first step toward a federal takeover of our schools?

Education Department officials did not ask for--or receive--any new commitments from states to join Mr. Clinton's effort, set to begin in the spring of 1999.

At the same time, no state officials refused to participate. Hawaii, Idaho, and Montana did not send representatives to the meeting held in a Washington hotel a few blocks from the department's headquarters.The federal officials also, however, received signals that some states are considering ways to merge the new tests into their own plans.

Through all the debate, President Clinton remains firmly in favor of the national tests. The proposal came directly from him, administration officials say, and he is committed to making it work. "The president is 1,000 percent behind this," said Mr. Smith, the acting deputy education secretary. "I'm sure he'll do whatever he can."

In the next week or so, Mr. Clinton may find out if that means vetoing a fiscal 1998 education spending bill that otherwise is to his liking.

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Web Resources
  • Voluntary National Tests. This Web site from the U.S. Department of Education, explains this initiative, and provides draft materials on both the the 4th grade reading test and 8th grade math test.
  • National Assessment Governing Board. Learn about the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only ongoing, national test of academic progress. Read a self-critical plan for redesigning the testing program, which they acknowledge "provides too little information, too infrequently, and too late."
  • Read United States Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's April 29, 1997 testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families on voluntary national tests for reading and math.
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