Clinton Team Pulls Out the Stops for Test Plan

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President Clinton and his team last week marshaled their resources to halt a pending effort to shut down their national testing plan.

The president interrupted his vacation to speak out for the program, and Vice President Al Gore recruited support in a conference call with business leaders.

On Capitol Hill, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley lobbied House Democrats at a meeting called to garner their support, and senior Democrats in both the House and Senate sought backing for the plan to test the reading abilities of 4th graders and the math knowledge of 8th graders, starting in 1999.

The administration's senior advisers even threatened to recommend that Mr. Clinton veto a pending fiscal 1998 education spending bill if it included a clause prohibiting the Department of Education from spending money on test development.

Late last week, it was uncertain whether the spending bill would include such language. The Senate postponed its vote until this week. At press time, it was unclear whether the House would vote late Friday or this week.

But the assessment of some observers was that the administration was fighting an uphill battle.

"The White House has a lot of work to do," Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., said last Thursday, shortly after Mr. Riley met with Democratic House members. Many Democrats have long questioned the use of testing in school reform, and several factions--specifically black and Hispanic members of Congress--are opposed to it, Mr. Kildee added.

Counting the Votes

But administration officials remained confident that they would prevail. Republican leaders would be gun-shy about challenging the White House on education after losing confrontations on the issue during the past two years, said Michael Cohen, the president's education adviser.

The lobbying barrage started in July after Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., introduced an amendment to stop the Education Department from continuing its work on the national tests. Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., unveiled a similar amendment in the Senate on Sept. 3.

Last month, the department awarded a contract to a coalition of test publishers to design the assessments. ("Riley Offers Test Control Concession," Sept. 3, 1997.)

Seven states and 15 urban areas have promised to participate in the first year of the exams. Alaska late last month became the most recent state to say it would use the tests.

Mr. Goodling has said that he is confident his amendment will pass as long as the president doesn't put too much pressure on Democrats.

"If people vote their conscience, we'll win," he said last week. "If they say, 'I'm supporting my leader,' we'll lose."

While Mr. Goodling could win with the unanimous support of the GOP, he said he was not counting on that. Some members may vote against him, he said, to avoid a presidential veto of the larger appropriations bill.

But it appeared some Democrats would not support Mr. Clinton out of loyalty. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said all but one or two of the 14 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus would vote with Mr. Goodling. Their chief concern is that the 4th grade reading test would not be offered in languages other than English.

"The intent is good," Mr. Becerra said in an interview. "It's the implementation that's always been a concern."

Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., a co-sponsor of the Goodling amendment, said a "considerable number" of his colleagues in the 32-member Congressional Black Caucus would vote with him to block the tests. "We'd like to put testing on hold and move forward with opportunity-to-learn" standards, he said. "You can't do one without the other. It's unfair to the kids."

The three most senior Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, meanwhile, urged their Democratic colleagues to support the president. Reps. William L. Clay, an African-American who represents a St. Louis district, Matthew G. Martinez, who is Hispanic and from Los Angeles, and George Miller, a liberal from northern California are backing the testing plan.

Senate Uncertainty

On the Senate side, the voting patterns have not been as clear. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the subcommittee that funds education programs, hastily arranged a hearing last Thursday to discuss the testing plan after his GOP colleagues introduced their amendment on Wednesday afternoon.

Mr. Riley and Mr. Goodling appeared separately before the panel, repeating the positions outlined in an Aug. 25 broadcast of the CBS public-affairs program "Face the Nation."

At the end of the 90-minute session, Mr. Specter did not say how he would vote. Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said he would vote to let the testing process proceed.

Discuss President Clinton's proposed national testing plan in our on-line Town Meeting.

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Web Resources
  • Voluntary National Tests, 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 Richard W. Riley's 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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