Assessment

In State Chiefs’ Races, Testing Gets Top Billing

By Mark Stricherz — October 25, 2000 6 min read

Despite a backlash to high-stakes testing in some states, such tests could prove to be a political winner for several candidates running this fall for their states’ top education posts.

Of course, other issues are being broached on the campaign trail in the six states where voters are electing a state schools superintendent or education commissioner next month. Among the most prominent are higher teacher pay, greater school safety, and better teacher preparation.

But those issues tend to be ones embraced by all the candidates. Testing, by contrast, is a topic on which clear differences have emerged between the candidates in the three biggest states with races for a schools chief: Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana. The other states with such elections this year are Montana, North Dakota, and Washington.

What may be driving support for the testing programs in those states are the broader educational improvement efforts that they are a part of, some analysts say. In North Carolina, Indiana, and Florida alike, state and business leaders have won support from the public for plans aimed at increasing accountability and raising academic standards.

In his bid for re-election as North Carolina’s superintendent, Democrat Michael E. Ward is strongly defending the state’s high-stakes testing program—part of a broader school accountability system that has been cited as a national model by proponents of standards-based school reform. Like many of the state’s teachers, his Republican opponent wants to overhaul the program.

In Mr. Ward’s view, the future of the testing is the most vital issue in this fall’s election, because the Tar Heel State next spring will begin holding back 5th graders who fail to pass a statewide test. The superintendent’s stance has apparently not hurt him in the campaign; polls suggest that he boasts a strong lead over Republican Michael Barrick, a member of the Caldwell County board of education. “The fact is, there’s so much momentum behind accountability that even most of those in [Mr. Barrick’s] party support it,” Mr. Ward said.

Indiana’s Tests Challenged

In Indiana, Superintendent of Education Suellen Reed has been standing up for the state testing program in the face of criticism from her Democratic opponent, Gerald McCullum, the superintendent of the Whiting school system in Lake County.

Eric Waltenburg, a political science professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., calls high-stakes testing “the only major difference” between the two candidates.

Mr. McCullum opposes the state’s current policy of requiring students to pass the state’s 10th grade test in order to graduate. Ms. Reed defends the existing policy, pointing out that it allows students who fail the test alternative means to qualify for a diploma.

“The things we’re asking kids to do are pretty basic things,” she said. “This is our last chance for them to get what they need [before graduation] and be successful.”

In an unusual development, the Republican schools chief has picked up the endorsement of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the 47,000-member Indiana State Teachers Association, in her attempt for a third four-year term.

“It happens almost never,” Mr. Waltenburg said of the union’s decision to endorse a Republican. “It says more about her than it does about him.”

According to political observers like Mr. Waltenburg, Ms. Reed is expected to coast to re-election.

In Florida, Charlie Crist, a pro-testing Republican candidate for education commissioner, is running in a close race against Democrat George Sheldon, who opposes the state testing program. Recent polls suggest that Mr. Crist enjoys a slight lead.

Mr. Sheldon, who resigned in June as the state’s deputy attorney general, has been endorsed by the 120,000-member Florida Education Association. Like the union, Mr. Sheldon has attacked the state’s A+ for Education Plan, a school accountability program championed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush that tests students in grades 3 through 8.

The Democratic candidate wants to replace those tests with so-called value-added exams. Under that approach, used in Tennessee, students would be tested at the beginning and end of the school year to gauge their progress and, by extension, how much educational “value” they received during the year.

“I don’t have a problem with tests. I have a problem with high-stakes tests,” Mr. Sheldon said. The Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test “doesn’t really give you any information back on how Johnny’s done,” he said, adding that tests should give parents such information as whether their child has raised his reading ability from a 2nd grade to a 4th grade level.

By contrast, Mr. Crist, a two-term state senator, calls himself “an ardent supporter” of high-stakes testing. The only change Mr. Crist said he would make in the testing regime is for students to get their results before the school year ends. Last year, he noted, state students received their scores during the summer.

At the same time, the Florida race is more polarized than in other states for reasons other than high-stakes testing, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

One reason is that in 2002, Florida will switch from electing its state school chiefs to appointing them. That means this fall’s election gives Mr. Crist and Mr. Sheldon a chance to run statewide races that could boost their chances for future office, Ms. MacManus observed.

“There’s always been a question about motivation, but both seem genuinely interested in education,” she said.

Another reason for the divisions, Ms. MacManus said, is vouchers. Florida is the only state with a statewide program that enables students to attend private schools with public money, even though relatively few students have been eligible to use them so far. Mr. Crist supports the program, while Mr. Sheldon does not.

But Floridians have bigger campaigns to watch: a closely fought presidential contest, and a race for an open U.S. Senate seat. The contest between Mr. Crist and Mr. Sheldon “has not gotten a lot of attention,” Ms. MacManus said.

Low Profiles

In Indiana, Mr. Waltenburg of Purdue said that state’s race has also attracted little interest from the news media and the public.

John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research group in Raleigh, said the same goes for his state.

“To call it low-key is an understatement,” Mr. Dornan said. “It’s the quietest state superintendent’s race I’ve seen in 20 years.”

In the other races, Democrat Wayne G. Sanstead, the state chief in North Dakota, appears to have a narrow lead over GOP rival Ray Holmberg. While no statewide polls have been conducted on the race, the four-term superintendent remains popular, said Steve Staumbaugh, a political science professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

High-stakes testing is not an issue in North Dakota, where students tend to post standardized-test scores that are among the highest in the country. Instead, the issues are bread-and-butter ones: more money to improve rural schools, which are suffering from population losses, and for higher teacher pay.

In Montana, Democratic state Rep. Linda McCulloch is thought to have a large lead over her Republican rival, Elaine Sollie Herman, in the race to succeed Democrat Nancy Keenan, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives. The main issue in the race has been an off-hand remark made several weeks ago by Ms. Herman, an investment adviser and former teacher, who joked that troublesome students should be shot.

“I’m going to give every teacher a gun and a holster and tell them to line up and shoot them,” Ms. Herman said, according to The Associated Press.

Jerry Calvert, the chairman of the political science department at Montana State University in Bozeman, said the comments have likely cost Ms. Herman any chance of winning the race.

In Washington, state Superintendent Terry Bergeson will be the only candidate for that office on the state ballot Nov. 7 because she garnered an outright majority in a primary there last month.

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