GOP Plays Hardball To Block National Tests

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The two sides in the national testing debate spent more time and energy last week fighting each other than seeking a compromise.

In the Senate, Republicans rallied to the campaign by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., to stop President Clinton's testing plan on any terms. That essentially was the position adopted by the House last month, a few days after the Senate voted to allow the new tests to proceed but to put their development in the hands of an independent review panel. Both votes were by large, bipartisan majorities.

Thirty-five GOP senators now say they will try to block any testing initiative that might be included in a House-Senate compromise.

Competing Literacy Plans in Congress

The Republican proposal, HR 2416, or the Reading Excellence Act, would:

  • Allow states, through reading and literacy partnerships, to compete for grants for innovative in-service reading programs for teachers and other school staff members. States would have to pass 95 percent of the money to the local school level.
  • Enable local education agencies in economic enterprise and empowerment zones to apply for grants to pay for tutoring. The grants would be used in Title I-eligible schools.
  • Emphasize teacher training by giving preference to states that have modified, or plan to modify, state teacher certification to reflect reliable reading research.
  • Authorize $260 million under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

President Clinton's plan, HR 1516, or the America Reads Challenge Act, would:

  • Finance "a citizen army'' of 25,000 reading specialists and AmeriCorps workers to mobilize 1 million volunteer reading tutors.
  • Pay for "Parents as First Teachers'' challenge grants to emphasize strong parental involvement.
  • Promote involvement of 100,000 college work-study students as tutors.
  • Authorize $260 million.

"The more senators know about this proposal, the more they understand we need to follow the House," Sen. Ashcroft said at a news conference last Thursday.

In the House the same day, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the leader of the testing opponents, exercised his power as the chairman of the education committee to stop work on a literacy bill. The move was intended to "make a statement" of his commitment to stopping the assessment, he said.

Mr. Goodling's move drew an immediate rebuke from the Clinton administration, which had won a promise from Republicans to approve a $260 million reading program this year.

"Trying to stop the voluntary national tests and the reading initiative is hardly the right way to help any child become a better reader," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement.

A High-Level Dare

Later that day, Mr. Goodling and several of his supporters dared the president to veto a spending bill that halts testing but also pays for school programs, cancer research, and other politically popular federal efforts.

"I would love to see him tell the American people ... all the things in the bill will go down the tubes because he has this ill-conceived notion," Mr. Goodling said at the same news conference where Sen. Ashcroft spoke.

Amid the rancor, some discussion of a compromise emerged, but none of the talk was significant enough to signal a deal on the horizon.

On Sept. 11, with the administration's blessing, the Senate voted 88-12 to give the National Assessment Governing Board full authority over the development of Mr. Clinton's proposed voluntary new tests of 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. The vote later changed to 87-13. The next week, the House voted 295-125 to deny the Education Department the authority to spend any money on the tests.

Both amendments are attached to a bill appropriating money for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services for fiscal 1998, which began Oct. 1.

The Education Department has ordered its contractors to stop work on the test until Congress settles the issue. ("Riley Delays National Tests' Development," Oct. 1, 1997.)

At a bicameral conference committee meeting called early last week to discuss House and Senate differences on testing and funding issues, Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., suggested that Congress appropriate money so test publishers could revise existing tests to give the national comparisons Mr. Clinton wants. "Perhaps a middle ground might be ... allowing a modest amount of money for the use of tests that are valid already," Mr. Gorton said Oct. 7.

Skeptical Review

House Republicans at the meeting indicated that they might be interested in that approach. But the Education Department's No. 2 official sounded skeptical in an interview. To win Mr. Clinton over, a deal would need to create tests assessing students' achievement as compared against the standards set in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the existing federally sponsored testing program, said Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education. It also would need to promise to release test questions to the public after students take them, which would require new tests to be written every year.

"The test the president is advocating will do a lot of things other tests don't do," Mr. Smith said in an interview.

Mr. Goodling, for his part, offered a slight concession: "Cancel the contract [with test publishers to write the test] and we can deliberate next year," when Congress is due to reauthorize NAEP, he told reporters after the Oct. 9 news conference.

That deal is unlikely to get the administration's backing because Mr. Clinton wants assessments ready for the spring of 1999. Contractors need to do a year of field and pilot testing first.

The issue must be settled by Oct. 23, unless Congress and Mr. Clinton extend a measure temporarily funding programs for which final fiscal 1998 appropriations bills have not been approved.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said last week that Congress may push the deadline back two more weeks.

With Congress out of session this week, another extension appears inevitable.

Reading Duel

While testing was the main point of contention last week, Mr. Goodling and the administration were at odds over the reading bill as well. A bill Mr. Goodling prepared for his committee to consider included tutorial-assistance grants for struggling elementary school students.

"It's close to vouchers, and it's impossible to administer," Mr. Smith said. "It's not necessary" to have grants for tutoring for the reading program to work, he said.

But Mr. Goodling maintained that Democrats would support his bill. "It's pretty tough to walk away from those type of programs for people who need it the most," he said.

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