President Bush put forward a fresh round of education proposals last week, calling for all states to test 12th graders under the National Assessment of Educational Progress and outlining a grant program that would encourage low-income students to study mathematics or science in college.
He unveiled those ideas and reiterated several more that the White House wove into the theme of “better education for better jobs” during a visit to a community college in south Arkansas.
Mr. Bush wants to broaden participation in NAEP, often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” to measure the reading and math skills of 12th graders in every state. Currently, states are required only to participate in the NAEP reading and math tests for 4th and 8th graders. The 12th grade tests are voluntary and produce results only at the national level rather than state by state.
“Your governor needs to know, the citizens need to know, how you stack up relative to other places, if you expect to educate children for the jobs of the 21st century,” the president said in explaining his proposed plans for NAEP during an April 6 speech at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, Ark.
The plan emerged one month after a national commission studying the future of the test for 12th graders issued the same recommendation on requiring 12th grade participation from all states. The 18-member commission, established by the National Assessment Governing Board, also proposed redesigning the testing system to better measure the readiness of 12th graders for college, employment, or the military. (“Panel Recommends State-Level NAEP for 12th Graders,” March 10, 2004.)
“The president’s endorsement of this pushes it well down the court,” said Mark D. Musick, the co-chairman of the commission and the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, based in Atlanta. “At the 12th grade, the truth is we do very little testing, and we should know at the end of the K-12 process some things we don’t know currently.”
Margaret Spellings, Mr. Bush’s domestic-policy adviser, said the White House envisions that the federal government would pay the cost of the new testing mandate, which would require congressional action.
“This requirement builds on No Child Left Behind, which requires participation from states in grades 4 to 8,” she said in response to an Education Week question in an “Ask the White House” online chat on April 8.
Along with his call to change NAEP, the president on April 6 outlined proposed revisions to federal student aid, most notably Pell Grants, which help needy students pay for college.
Mr. Bush proposed launching a $100 million “public-private partnership” grant program that would give 20,000 low-income students an additional $5,000 a year if they agreed to study mathematics or science in college. Only Pell-eligible low-income students could receive that extra aid, though the initiative would be administered separately from the Pell Grant program. He did not specify which private entities could participate.
To cover the costs of that new initiative, Mr. Bush also proposed an eight-year limit on the time undergraduates at four-year institutions could receive Pell Grants, and a four-year cap for students at two-year schools. No firm time limit is placed on such aid now, though colleges are expected to make sure that students progress academically to stay eligible over time.
President Bush’s proposed funding shuffle dismayed some higher education experts, who said Mr. Bush seemed to be channeling Pell Grant funding to certain student groups, then seeking other cutbacks at the expense of needy undergraduates.
“Does it become the death of 1,000 nicks?” said Travis Reindl, the state policy director for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “When you start picking apart the program with a lot of things, you diminish the ability to serve low-income students.”
The president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2005 would raise the total funding for Pell Grants by $856 million, to $12.9 billion, but keep the maximum yearly award at $4,050 for the third year in a row.
In his Arkansas speech, Mr. Bush also proposed tougher academic requirements for federal vocational education by redirecting federal money into a new program, called “secondary and technical education.” He made a similar proposal last year. But last week, he added a new requirement: All precollegiate schools receiving such vocational aid would have to offer four years of English and three years of math, science, and social studies.
The proposal comes a few months after Mr. Bush proposed cutting federal vocational funding from $1.3 billion to $1 billion for fiscal 2005, which begins Oct. 1. He offered the same budget plan for fiscal 2004, only to see Congress reinsert that money.
Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of the National Association of the State Directors of Career and Technical Education Consortium in Washington, credited the president for paying increased attention to the link between education and the economy. But she criticized him for what she said were suggestions that today’s vocational programs are outdated, or lacking rigor. In his April 6 speech, Mr. Bush noted that the federal vocational education law, in its first version, “was written in 1917,” an era when necessary job skills were radically different.
“We’re disappointed by the continuous false perception of what’s going on around the country,” Ms. Green said.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, told reporters last week that, because of the growing budget deficit, he might have to scale back some of the domestic proposals he had announced earlier in his campaign.
After delivering an April 7 policy speech in Washington on his budget plans, Mr. Kerry cited his proposals to expand early-childhood education and to offer free tuition to students attending state colleges in exchange for two years of national service as examples of initiatives he would consider trimming.