Compromise Is Next Step in Testing Odyssey
Now that the House and the Senate have staked out opposite positions on the proposed national testing initiative, the two chambers and President Clinton will likely shift their attention toward reaching a compromise that satisfies several competing interests.
For Republicans, that will mean finding a middle ground between one faction of conservatives that opposes the tests on any terms and another group that favors such assessments but wants them monitored by a nonpartisan panel.
Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, will need to pacify House liberals in his own party who don't want the tests until the federal government does more to address economic and social needs in inner cities. He will also have to maintain the loyalty of Democratic senators who supported his national test plan so that his veto threat will carry weight during negotiations with the House, which assembled a veto-proof majority last week for an amendment requiring the administration to halt test development.
At the same time, all indications are that Mr. Clinton will want his plan for voluntary 4th grade reading and 8th grade math tests to remain on an ambitious schedule that would have them ready for students by spring 1999. A national panel that convened under a Department of Education contract approved a detailed blueprint for the tests just hours before the House vote last week. ("House Blocks, While Panel Settles On, New Tests," in This Week's News.)
So far, seven states have signed on to use the assessments. In addition, 15 big-city school districts have said they'll take part, though one of them, Los Angeles, plans to use only the math test.
"I assume we will be able to find some way to resolve the differences" on the testing issues, said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, a testing proponent who will lead the House Democratic delegation in a conference committee with the Senate.
Others involved in the debate aren't sure. Many House Republicans are so committed to stopping the tests that they would be willing to dare Mr. Clinton to reject the $270 billion bill appropriating money for education and social programs, which includes the amendment that would block the tests.
"If he wants to veto it over national testing, people on our side of the aisle are fine with that," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. "For many of us, it's a matter of principle."
The House-Senate conference committee, which will work to settle the differences on testing and hundreds of appropriations items, may meet as early as this week.
Given the distance that separates the two sides on testing and the number of items in the spending bills, a quick resolution is unlikely. The conference talks could drag on for two or three weeks.
A Resounding Defeat
The House voted Sept. 16 to prohibit the Department of Education from spending any of its funding on developing the tests.
The vote resoundingly rejected, 295-125, President Clinton's top education priority. It also cleared the two-thirds majority needed for a House override of a potential presidential veto. Seventy-five Democrats, many of them black or Hispanic, deserted Mr. Clinton on the vote. Some black and Hispanic members have argued that the tests would be unfair to minority and poor children who haven't had the educational advantages that children in more affluent schools have. Only three Republicans voted against the amendment, which was sponsored by Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa.
But House members aren't confident that the president would be overruled in the Senate, where none of the 45 Democrats has spoken out against testing. A veto override requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress.
The Senate voted Sept. 11 to redirect Mr. Clinton's testing program by giving the National Assessment Governing Board, the nonpartisan panel that oversees the existing national assessment program, control over it. The administration endorsed the compromise brokered by Democrats and Republicans and eventually approved by 87 senators. ("Senate OKs Reworked Testing Plan," Sept. 17, 1997.)
Mr. Goodling, however, dismissed the Senate proposal. The assessment governing board, known as NAGB, would be too independent and powerful, he said, if it were allowed to nominate its own members, as the Senate amendment would allow.
Mr. Goodling said the decisive House vote indicated he would not compromise and allow funding for the test development to continue in fiscal 1998, which begins Oct. 1. He wants to defer debate until Congress starts the process of reauthorizing NAGB and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for which NAGB sets policy. That may not begin until January.
"That's the time to discuss testing," said Mr. Goodling, who would oversee the process as the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "It's not now when you haven't gone through hearings or anything else."
The administration will not want to wait that long. Mr. Clinton originally proposed developing the tests without congressional debate because he didn't want the initiative bogged down in legislative haggling, which could take a year or more to complete. But Mr. Goodling and others have questioned the executive branch's authority to proceed without the approval of Congress.
The administration is on a tight schedule to meet its self-imposed spring 1999 deadline for testing students.
Another influential Republican, meanwhile, said a settlement might include allowing NAGB to take charge of the test for now, but giving Congress the last word next year in NAEP's reauthorization.
"The most important issue is to have the national debate," added Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who chairs the education subcommittee responsible for NAEP.
At this point, however, neither side is talking compromise.
"I've told the [GOP] leadership: 'If you let me down on this, don't expect my support on anything,'" Mr. Goodling said in an interview. "This issue is that important to me."
"The House vote is unacceptable, and it will not stand," Mr. Clinton said in a statement shortly after the Goodling amendment passed. "My administration will work hard to make sure that the final legislation reflects the bipartisan support of the Senate and the broad support of the American people."