Riley Delays National Tests' Development

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As support for new national student tests continued to erode last week, the Department of Education temporarily stopped work on the project that is one of President Clinton's top domestic-policy priorities.

In a one-page statement, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley announced he was halting the development of the proposed voluntary tests in reading for 4th graders and math for 8th graders. The decision was made in concert with the White House, officials said.

The Sept. 25 statement specifically pointed to a conflict over the use of calculators in the math test. It made no mention, however, of the most contentious issue--the decision to administer the reading test only in English--which has angered many urban officials and prompted several districts to drop plans to give the reading test.

Mr. Riley said he wants the new tests to resemble the existing National Assessment of Educational Progress and believes the way to do that is through the independent, bipartisan panel that now oversees NAEP. He has put further work on the tests--including that of the test contractor--on hold until that body, the National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, can step in. Congress would have to approve giving NAGB oversight of the tests.

"The main thing we're trying to say is: 'We're serious about NAGB being in charge of this,'" Michael Cohen, the president's education adviser, said last week.

The reliance on NAGB is consistent with the administration's recent decision, under pressure from Congress and others, to shift oversight of the national tests from the Education Department to the governing board. And it jibes with legislation on the tests that passed the Senate last month and was endorsed by the administration.

Mr. Riley's announcement "is a natural outgrowth of the deal that was struck in the Senate," said Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education.

With last week's statement, the Clinton administration has for the first time slowed down the formulation of the tests. As debate raged in Congress and concerns about the tests intensified across the political spectrum, the Education Department forged ahead.

But support seemed to slip even more last week. More Capitol Hill lawmakers said they opposed the tests, and two more urban districts reversed their plans to take part in the reading test.

A conservative-liberal coalition in the House had already voted overwhelmingly to cut off funding for the two tests.

Delay Welcomed

Some leading experts embraced the wait for NAGB oversight. "I think it's a very positive step," said Diane S. Ravitch, a senior fellow at both the Brookings Institution in Washington and at New York University. "NAGB ... has a track record; it's not an arm of the administration," said Ms. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President Bush. "It's harder to politicize [national testing] when there's an independent governing board."

Wilmer S. Cody, the chairman of the ad hoc national panel that worked to create a blueprint for the new tests, called Mr. Riley's action "appropriate." Mr. Cody, who is the commissioner of education in Kentucky, one of seven states that have signed on to give the tests, added that he thought "the fair and proper thing to do is fold this activity under NAGB or not proceed any further."

Since Mr. Clinton announced his plan for the tests in his State of the Union Address in February, they have proceeded at breakneck speed toward implementation. The president wants them to be given nationwide beginning in March 1999. The test panel of educators and others completed work only two weeks ago on the tests' content and design. ("House Blocks, While Panel Settles On, New Tests," Sept. 24, 1997.)

The tests are to report the scores of individual students and--Mr. Clinton and other officials hope--help parents, teachers, schools, states, and others understand what students know and can do in those key subjects and grades. The idea is also to hold children nationwide to higher and more uniform academic standards than they are currently.

The specifications drawn up by the national panel were intended to guide the work of the firms hired to write the tests under an Education Department contract. That setup is still the plan.

Mr. Smith said he expected NAGB to endorse "some very large percentage" of the existing specifications. "This is not a strategy to junk these things at all," he added.

Officials from the department and the White House said last week they expected that the delay in test development would not affect the March 1999 testing date.

But William T. Randall, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, said the margin for error is slim. "If this isn't settled by the first of November, it's going to create serious problems for the contractors."

'Damage Control'?

Administration officials have said for months they have authority to create the tests without explicit congressional approval. So far, the Education Department has paid out more than $15 million for contracts for test creation or evaluation.

But lawmakers in Congress, led by the chairman of the House education committee, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., bristled at being left out of an unprecedented shift in national education policy.

On Sept. 16, the House voted 295-195 to support an appropriations amendment by Mr. Goodling that blocked test funding. The Senate had overwhelmingly supported the test plan on Sept. 11 but directed that NAGB have oversight. A conference committee was to begin last week to work out the differences between the two chambers. But Mr. Clinton has said he would veto the appropriations bill rather than cave in on the test issue.

By deciding to postpone further movement on the tests, "I assume what the secretary is doing is damage control," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and a former assistant education secretary under President Reagan.

But a spokeswoman for the Education Department said the thinking was just the opposite. "If we hadn't done this," said Melinda Kitchell Malico, "some would say we were damaging the prospects for the tests."

Nonetheless, the chief congressional critic was skeptical. "The administration is suspending test development in order to look good for the House-Senate conference," Mr. Goodling said in a statement released after Mr. Riley's. "The Clinton administration is arrogant to assume that a Senate amendment will soon become law."

Even though the Senate amendment passed with 87 votes, Mr. Goodling said that some Republicans in that chamber are reconsidering. Twenty-seven GOP senators had signed a letter as of last week saying they preferred the House's prohibition on testing to the Senate provision. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., the letter's author, vowed to lead a filibuster against a bill supporting the new tests.

Meanwhile, school officials in Houston and El Paso, Texas, also confirmed last week that they have changed their minds about giving their students the proposed test in 4th grade reading. Los Angeles has also pulled out.

The fact that the Education Department has said the reading test is to be given only in English was unacceptable, district officials said. All three have sizable numbers of students with limited proficiency in English, and school leaders contend those students should take the test in their native languages.

Calculator Qualms

In his statement, Mr. Riley said he was concerned that the blueprint for the tests differed too much from NAEP, which has tested a national sampling of students in core subjects since 1969.

The new tests, Mr. Riley said, are meant essentially to be versions of the national assessment that provide results for the individual student, which NAEP does not do. But he pointed in particular to the decision by the test panel to depart from NAEP on the use of calculators on the math test.

AEP's math tests allow calculators on some parts and not on others. The national test panel recommended, but did not require, their use. The calculator issue had divided the national test panel and is emblematic of a schism nationwide about whether basic skills or higher-order thinking should hold sway in math classes.

"In my view," Mr. Riley said in the announcement, "a test of 8th grade students should measure, as NAEP does, whether students have learned how to do arithmetic accurately without a calculator."

Staff Writer David J. Hoff contributed to this report.

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