White House, GOP Craft Agreement on Testing

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President Clinton and congressional Republicans neared a compromise last week that will delay a final verdict on the proposed national testing plan until next year, while allowing the Department of Education to make minor progress on the plan, one of Mr. Clinton's top domestic priorities.

In the outline of a hard-fought compromise, House Republicans backed away from their demand that all testing preparations stop, and the administration agreed to slow an ambitious schedule that would have put the tests in front of students in the spring of 1999.

But the agreement settles nothing for the long term. Over the next 12 months, both sides will continue the debate over whether the federal government should pay for and endorse the creation of new tests to be given to 4th graders in reading and 8th graders in mathematics.

"In September or October of next year, if we haven't resolved this issue, we're right back where we are now," Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a testing foe, said at a press conference last Thursday.

Still, both sides claimed partial victory as they negotiated the final details of the compromise language to be attached to a bill appropriating $32 billion for federal education programs. ("Congress Poised To Pass Bill To Hike School Funding," in This Week's News.)

"I'm pleased because it enables us to continue with development of the test," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in an interview last Thursday morning.

"Congress will play a very large role in deciding how and if and when" there will be national testing, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa.--who led the push to halt Mr. Clinton's plan--said later that day at a Capitol Hill press conference. "The ball is in our court."

The testing compromise was to be attached to a fiscal 1998 spending bill for education, health, labor, and welfare programs. Congress spent Friday trying to finish it and other bills so it could adjourn for the year.

Last-Minute Details

Even though the general deal had the support of Mr. Clinton and GOP leaders, as of late last week one detail had to be finished.

In the final hours of negotiations, Mr. Goodling and the administration haggled over the date that the experiments with test items could begin.

Mr. Goodling wanted to delay that step until Oct. 1, 1998--the start of the next fiscal year. The administration wanted it to begin one month earlier.

Mr. Goodling insisted that pilot- and field-testing, which is done to ensure the validity and fairness of test questions, be postponed until Congress resolves the assessment plan's fate once and for all. The costs of that preparation would be wasted if Congress eventually abandoned the project, he said.

As the House prepared to vote on the bill Friday, Republicans planned to ban preliminary testing in fiscal 1998, GOP and Democratic sources said. That would dare the president to veto the entire spending bill over the issue.

Even if the field-testing were to begin Oct. 1, 1998, the administration would be unable to launch the full-scale testing program in the spring of 1999, as the president had hoped to do since unveiling his testing plan in his State of the Union Address earlier this year.

The delay probably would be for one year, meaning testing would not happen till 2000.

"That disappoints me, but it's not the end of the world," Mr. Riley said in the interview.

Difficult Deal

The deal took two months to broker. The House voted in early September to bar the administration, which already had the testing project well under way, from spending any more money on it. A few days earlier, the Senate had approved testing legislation that hinged on handing control of the assessments to an existing, nonpartisan board. ("House Blocks, While Panel Settles On, New Tests," Sept. 24, 1997.)

Last week's deal emerged from a Nov. 5 meeting between the president and Mr. Goodling.

Under the terms of the accord, the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which Mr. Goodling chairs, would hold hearings on national testing when it considers a renewal of the law governing the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal government's current sampling of student achievement across several subject areas and grade levels.

Last week's agreement makes no promises that Mr. Goodling and conservatives on his committee will authorize individual student testing as the president has proposed when they write their new NAEP bill. Mr. Clinton's plan has also drawn the opposition of many liberal House Democrats from urban districts.

While Congress considers the testing plan's future, the National Assessment Governing Board, the nonpartisan panel that oversees NAEP, will review the work of the contractors the Department of Education hired to write the proposed tests.

But the assessment governing board, known as NAGB, would not start pilot-testing or field-testing, as the existing Education Department contract requires.

At the same time Congress starts its hearings and NAGB reviews the existing work, the National Academy of Sciences will study whether existing off-the-shelf assessments could be used to measure student progress toward national standards. A draft of the study is due June 15, with the final report to be done next fall.

The study could be especially influential in the debate.

If a panel of experts assembled by the academy determines that available tests could yield the same information that Mr. Clinton promises his tests will deliver, GOP leaders could justify abandoning the president's testing proposal.

Rocky Road

While the testing compromise had the support of many of the principal players on Capitol Hill, it could run into significant opposition before it becomes law.

Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., the Senate's biggest critic of the proposed tests, threatened late last week to use the power of the filibuster--or prolonged debate--to hold up consideration of the spending bill containing the compromise.

"I am prepared to debate this issue all weekend ... if that is what it takes to prevent the federalization of our schools," he said Thursday afternoon in a statement.

As of Friday morning, Sen. Ashcroft had not decided whether he would try to derail the bill.

But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who threatened his own filibuster of a bill that sought to block the tests, said he would back the compromise.

In the House, black and Hispanic members decided to support the compromise because included assurances that the tests would not discriminate against minorities or limited-English proficient students.

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