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Close-Up: Voluntary National Tests

A close-up examination of the reasoning behind the plan to introduce voluntary national tests of reading and mathematics in America's schools in March 1999.

"Tonight, I issue a challenge to the nation: Every state should adopt high national standards and, by 1999, every state should test every fourth grader in reading and every eighth grader in math to make sure these standards are met."
--President Clinton, State of the Union Address, February 4, 1997

In his State of the Union Address, President Clinton proposed a voluntary, national reading test at grade 4 and a math test at grade 8. The tests---which will be offered for the first time in March 1999---are intended to provide information for parents and teachers about how their students are progressing compared to students in other states and other countries.

"We must provide all our people with the best education in the world," Clinton said in his annual address, in which he challenged America to commit to a bold ten-point plan of action for American education. The first of those ten points was to "set rigorous national standards."

"As a nation, we do not expect enough of our students," President Clinton said. "We know that every child in America can meet higher standards, if we have the courage and the vision to set the standards, to teach up to them, and to test whether children have learned what we have taught them."

Clinton notes that what the top 20 percent of our students typically learn in math in the eighth grade is learned by most students in Japan in the seventh grade. And while today America's fourth graders read as well as ever on average, 40 percent cannot read as well as they should.

"These tests are about high standards, improving expectations, and giving our young people the basic skills they need that will prepare them for the knowledge-driven economy in the 21st century," said Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education, in his statement about the Voluntary National Tests for Reading and Math. "Our young people need to master the basics once and for all. And parents deserve to know how their children are achieving."

So far, fifteen urban school districts have announced that they plan to participate in voluntary national tests in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math, the President announced on July 25 in a speech to the National Association of Elementary School Principals. These 15 urban school systems---which include the 3 largest (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago) and 6 of the 7 largest in the U.S.---join the states of Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, and West Virginia, and Department of Defense schools (which together serve nearly 1/5th of the nation's students) in pledging to take part in the tests.


Following are questions and answers that will provide some general information about the voluntary tests. This in not intended to be a detailed, everything-you-wanted-to-know about the plan. Internet connections listed in the content and below will provide additional details.

Why test fourth graders in reading and eighth graders in math?

The decision was "a very deliberate one," says Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "Reading and math are the core basics, and fourth and eighth grades are critical transition points in a child's educational experience."

"It is essential that our students master the basics of reading English by the end of third grade," says President Clinton. "At fourth grade, students are expected to read so they can learn science, history, literature, and mathematics. If they can read by then, they can read to learn for a lifetime. Students who fail to read well by fourth grade often have a greater likelihood of dropping out and a lifetime of diminished success."

"It is also important that our students master the basics of math and the essentials of algebra and even geometry by the end of eighth grade," Clinton adds. "They will then have the foundation to take college prep courses in high school and compete in the world arena. The United States ranks below average internationally in eighth grade math. We must do better."

Why a new test? Why not use the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests?

NAEP and TIMSS do not show how individual students perform. The tests are administered to a random sample of students in participating states, rather than to all students. Each student in the sample takes only a portion of the total test questions. As a result, no student or parent currently receives a score from these tests.

On what standards will the tests be based?

The tests will be based on content standards already established through a national consensus process. The content---or test items---for both the reading and math tests will be based on the Content Frameworks developed for the NAEP.

How will the tests be made available?

The tests will be made available to test publishers, states, districts, and others under a licensing agreement or similar compact. States, districts, schools, teachers, and other individuals will be able to assess students in the spring of every year, beginning in the spring of 1999. Use of the tests will be strictly voluntary and decisions about whether or not to participate will not affect continuing participation in Federal programs.

Why test?

"Raising standards will not be easy," said President Clinton in his State of the Union address. "Some of our children will not be able to meet them at first. The point is not to put our children down, but to lift them up. Good tests will show us who needs help, what changes in teaching to make, and which schools need to improve."

"These new tests are an opportunity, not a requirement; a national challenge, not a national curriculum," says Richard Riley. "This will be a very healthy development. We should not and must not tolerate failing schools."

"I will be more than happy if the results of these tests light some fires under some people and help turn around failing schools," Riley adds. "The tests will fundamentally improve our thinking when it comes to defining expectations. And that just needs to happen, sooner rather than later."

"Our children are smarter than we think. I just can't say that enough," Riley emphasizes. "We simply need to challenge their minds so that they are prepared for the 21st century."

"I also believe these tests are absolutely essential for the future of American education," Riley concludes. "The American people are 'tuned in' to education, and they have made it quite clear that they expect us to make education this nation's number one priority. These voluntary national tests are at the very heart of our efforts to achieve excellence."


  • After each administration, the entire test along with answers, scoring guides, and other materials will be released to the public and placed on the Internet so that students, parents, and teachers can know what is expected to reach standards of excellence in reading and math.

  • The total cost of developing the tests will be between $10-12 million annually. The Department of Education intends to reimburse licensees (for example, states, school districts, and testing companies) that wish to administer the tests in 1999. The costs of administration are estimated at $10 to $12 per student.

  • The new reading and math tests will take about 90 minutes to administer and will include about 80 percent multiple choice, with 20 percent constructed response (students produce their own answers), including one extended constructed response item. About 50 percent of test time will be devoted to constructed response.

  • If possible, sample tests will be developed and made available in the fall of 1998.

  • Test results will be reported within the same school year as the tests are taken.

Related Resources

Relevant Reports from the U.S. Department of Education, which can be ordered for a nominal fee, include the following Statistical Analysis Reports:

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2006 Education World