National Tests, Albeit Weaker, Survive Attack
National tests are dead; long live national tests.
Both sides in the testing debate declared victory last week when President Clinton signed an omnibus spending bill that determined the short-term fate of his plan to create voluntary new national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics.
Such opponents as Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House education committee, said they had derailed Mr. Clinton's plan by "prohibiting the use of federal funds for implementing any new national tests not explicitly authorized by Congress," as stated in the bill.
But the compromise language, according to White House aides, allows the bipartisan panel in charge of the initiative to continue working on test questions and studying problems that need to be solved if Congress does authorize the pilot- and field-testing required to prepare the exams.
"It keeps it alive, but not in a way that we would have liked," Michael Cohen, the president's education adviser, said last week.
The bottom line is that the two sides, for the second consecutive year, failed to decide the ultimate fate of the tests. That keeps the program inching forward until Congress and Mr. Clinton reach d‚tente on the issue--if they do.
"It's a life-support system we're dealing with here," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington nonprofit aimed at improving student achievement in core subjects. "It's a shame it didn't get resolved."
Just when such truce may come, and what it might look like, is still up in the air.
Congress is scheduled next year to reauthorize the National Assessment of Educational Progress--the current federally sponsored sampling of student achievement in core subjects that would be the basis of the new tests. The same bill would renew the National Assessment Governing Board, the bipartisan panel that oversees NAEP and the development of the proposed tests.
President Clinton argues that such tests, if widely administered by states or districts, would serve as a lever to improve students' skills in the two most basic subjects, reading and math, at points where they need to master them to assure success in later grades. Republican foes say the plan represents a worrisome expansion of federal influence in education and would add to an already ample load of tests students take.
The past suggests that the two camps will not reach a resolution soon. For two consecutive congressional sessions, Congress and the White House have debated the issue extensively. The compromises they reached precluded both sides from declaring complete victory and left the final decision for another year.
"Any type of agreement on a polarized issue is not going to happen in one fell swoop," said Sarah Binder, a research associate in governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Testing opponents, however, may have the upper hand. Mr. Clinton's original plan--unveiled in his 1997 State of the Union Address--called for the exams to be ready for students to take by the spring of 1999. Given the language in last week's legislation, the starting date would probably be set back until the spring of 2002, according to Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the assessment governing board.
Mr. Clinton compromised on the testing initiative, according to observers, because his own party is divided on the issue. In addition to the opposition of gop lawmakers, the plan has drawn strong objections from black and Hispanic Democrats in Congress. They have argued that conservatives would use a poor showing on the tests in urban districts to justify school voucher programs and that a reading test in English would be unfair to students who can't speak the language.
In contrast, Mr. Clinton won Republican concessions to spend $1.2 billion on hiring and training new teachers in fiscal 1999 because Democrats united behind that cause.
Without such unanimity on testing, it may be difficult to keep the president's plan moving forward, even at its current snail's pace.
Exploring Other Issues
In addition to allowing the assessment governing board, known as NAGB, to continue preparing test questions, the compromise in the spending bill requires the board and academic experts to study national testing issues.
AGB will need to inform Congress about what it sees as the purpose of the tests, answering such questions as whether states would be allowed to use the results to decide if individual students should be retained or promoted to the next grade. The governing board will also have to explain who should decide which children take the exams--state leaders, district officials, or parents.
Separately, NAGB will be required to respond to recent criticisms from a National Academy of Sciences panel that the process the board follows in setting NAEP achievement levels is "fundamentally flawed." Those "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" achievement levels would be used to score the proposed new tests.
For its part, the national academy, a private scientific group that advises the federal government, will study the feasibility of taking a block of NAEP questions and adding them to a state's own assessment, in lieu of separate national tests. The study is needed to find out if the approach is technically possible and if it would yield reliable data on individual students' achievement.
That approach, known as "embedding," could provide a politically attractive alternative because it would blur the lines between a state assessment and a national one.
If the technical problems can be solved, the administration would endorse that approach, according to Mr. Cohen, the president's education aide. "What's important to us is that students and schools be measured against a widely accepted set of standards," he said. "The technology of how you do it ... is not an issue."
With or without federal assistance, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group is working with 20 states to explore the possibility of embedding a national set of questions into their exams. The Cambridge, Mass.-based Achieve Inc. says it may prepare a slate of nationalized questions within two years.
"We're going to plow ahead," said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of the group established by governors and corporate leaders to monitor and encourage standards-based reforms. "We think we have a workable political strategy and the makings of a substantive strategy."
But one longtime proponent of national testing said the federal government should do more to help states than it has.
"I think the states will get it done ourselves," said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat who will retire in January. "It's unfortunate we can't get the national government to help."
Boon for NAEP?
While the research continues, NAGB will keep its schedule to draft test questions and set policies for the tests. Over the next year, it will do much of its work it had planned, except for the pilot- and field-testing of questions, which had been scheduled for the spring.
The board will proceed with hearings that will inform it of which accommodations to offer limited-English-proficient and disabled students, according to Mr. Musick, NAGB's chairman and the president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.
It also will maintain development of the 1,200 questions that board members believe they would need for each of the proposed national tests, he added.
Even if the national-testing initiative is halted, the creation of the test items will have been a valuable exercise, Mr. Musick said last week. "At the very least, we are going to have hundreds and hundreds of new reading and math items for NAEP," he said. NAGB plans to offer the next 8th grade math exam in 2000 and the next 4th grade reading test in 2002.
States may even be able to use test questions that aren't included in NAEP, he added.
But will that be all the governing board can salvage from the more than $8 million it has spent on national test development so far?
Congress and Mr. Clinton have until next year to decide.
In addition to the reauthorization of NAEP and NAGB, Congress will be considering revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law in K-12 education. That could add new wrinkles to the debate, according to one observer.
"The context now will be different than 'national test or no national test,' " said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The fact that a national assessment could be used to measure progress under Title I and other ESEA programs may soften some opposition to it, he said.
But, in a Congress likely to remain in the control of Republicans, the onus will be on the Democratic president to prove the worth of his proposal, Ms. Binder of the Brookings Institution said.
"It's always easier to stop things than it is to enact them," she said.
Vol. 18, Issue 9, Pages 1, 29Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as National Tests, Albeit Weaker, Survive Attack