Search form

National Testing: Prepare for a Battle

Share President Clinton's plan for national testing is under attack from both sides. Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley are defending their plan.

In his 1997 State of the Union address, President Clinton called for voluntary, national exams for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. His expressed goal: To get a snapshot of where students stand and to use the data to improve student achievement. However, according to a recent Daily Report Card report, his plan is under attack by the left, many of whom complain of cultural bias in testing, and by the right, who fear any national testing program could lead to a national curriculum.

"I thought in January that maybe this was one of the odd Nixon-in China moments when the Democrats could deliver the liberal critics and enough Republican governors and congressmen could deliver the conservatives for it to come together," said Chester Finn, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "But if this falls apart it will be because of liberals who hate the word 'testing' and conservatives who hate the word 'national,' and it looks like that's beginning to come true."

Specifically, Clinton's plan is facing a congressional challenge. In a Washington Post story (August 19), congressman William Goodling (R-Pa.) pledged to "derail, even abolish, the groundbreaking testing plan by prohibiting the Education Department from spending any money on it." Goodling, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, remarked that "we already have plenty of testing ... why another measurement instrument to tell us what we already know?" The congressman has introduced a resolution and an amendment to a House appropriations bill designed to stop or delay Clinton's testing program.

Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University, in July resigned from the steering panel designing the test. In an editorial in the Washington Post (August 26), Ravitch, who once was a self-avowed "enthusiastic" supporter of Clinton's testing plan, says she is disgruntled over the direction of the testing plan. Ravitch claims that the White House's decision to allow the U.S. Department of Education to supervise the test only will serve to politically taint the testing program. She recommended that the program be handed over to the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), an independent and bipartisan group.

In a press release issued the same day as Ravitch's editorial, it is pointed out that Riley, while on CBS's "Face The Nation," announced plans to ask Congress to authorize the NAGB to set policy for the voluntary national tests in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math. The proposed legislation will call for an expansion of NAGB's authority to include setting policy for the voluntary national tests.

Ravitch also notes that the "Internet is humming with charges that the national tests will be stacked to favor 'whole language' theories of reading and against phonics and to promote 'fuzzy math' . . . and against computation."

"I do not know whether any of these fears are valid," Ravitch adds, "but the administration's partisan control of the test development processing has inflamed such feverish concerns."

Ravitch also charges that the administration is "pushing ahead without public hearings or explicit authorization by Congress."

A U.S. Department of Education press release reports that the department already has issued a contract to develop the voluntary national tests. "An alliance that includes the nation's most respected test publishers and a bipartisan council on basic skills will be responsible for developing the voluntary national tests in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade mathematics," the release states. (Click here to read the entire release.) The American Institutes for Research (AIR) will oversee the multi-year effort, with subcontractors including California Test Bureau/McGraw Hill; Council for Basic Education; Educational Testing Service; Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement; National Computer Systems; Riverside Publishing; and Westat, Inc.

The $13,035,848 contract was "awarded competitively following a review and recommendation by an evaluation panel," reports the release.

Advisory panels will be established this fall to oversee test development and test items, and scoring criteria will be developed this fall, with a field test to be ready next spring. The release reports that sample tests will be posted on the Internet in fall 1998 and AIR will oversee efforts to get public comments on the sample tests and to develop user-friendly reports of student test results.

A New York Times article (August 31) reflects on the magnitude of a national testing policy and the unprecedented, sustained focus on education. "Experts disagree on how much of what is happening reflects a long-term shift toward greater Federal involvement or is a result of a historical moment: a politically adroit President intensely focused on education, aging baby boomers who have made education a leading national issue, and an absence of competing issues," the article states.

Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy says "This is a country that is trying very hard to figure out how to do something no nation on Earth has done before, which is to have national standards without a national ministry of education, and the competing pressures are just enormous."

Education Secretary Riley, defending the department's mission to design and deploy voluntary national tests, claims the federal government has not lost sight of the nation's decentralized school system. Improving student achievement, which will make the nation more economically viable in the future, remains "a state responsibility, a local function and a Federal priority," he said.


On September 4, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley testified before a congressional subcommittee on the Voluntary National Tests proposed by the President for 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade mathematics. Following are a few highlights from his testimony:

  • Education begins with challenging students to do their best. That's why standards are so important -- rigorous standards that encourage students to work hard and stretch their minds. If I could sum up everything I've learned about education in three words, they would be "high standards work." That's because schools and students rise to the expectations we set for them.

  • Most importantly, we need to make sure that every young American gets a solid foundation in the basics -- reading and math. Reading scores have remained flat for a quarter of a century. And the results of the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) show that our 8th graders are below the international average in math. President Clinton and I took a look at all this and decided that we needed to take action. That is why we have proposed rigorous, voluntary national tests in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math . . . Fourth-grade reading and 8th-grade math were chosen because these two basic skills are the "make-or-break" points in a child's education.

  • Our proposal for voluntary national tests is not revolutionary. We are simply taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests one step further. Right now, NAEP does not test all students, and it provides no information at all on individual students, schools, or districts. We want to change that and that is why I call the new national tests a "personalized version of NAEP" because they will test individual students in participating schools or states. These tests will tell parents, teachers, policy makers, and students about what it takes to reach national and even international standards of achievement -- something no other test currently does.

  • I have attached a chart to my testimony . . . You can see that on some state tests, students appear to be doing high-level, proficient work. But students don't do as well when measured against NAEP's high standards of excellence. This means that some parents are being told that their children are doing "A" level work, when in reality they're only getting a "C" education. Voluntary national tests, linked to high standards, will give parents and teachers a much clearer, more realistic picture of how their children are doing.

  • Perhaps most important of all, these tests will get the whole country buzzing. They already have. I think I've heard more discussion about education in the last 6 months than I've ever heard, and that's the way to make bottom-up change happen. The American people are ready for this. The latest Gallup Poll found that two out of three Americans say that national tests would improve student achievement "a great deal or quite a lot."

  • Now, I know that some in the Congress and elsewhere have expressed concern about the tests . . . The Administration transmitted legislation to Congress yesterday which would authorize an already established, independent, bipartisan board to oversee the tests -- the National Assessment Governing Board, or "NAGB." We urge the Congress to pass this legislation without delay. . . These tests are not part of any attempt to create a national curriculum. Individual test scores will not be collected by the federal government. States and school districts will have control over the results, and they are designed to help teachers, principals, school boards, and parents to shape their own curricula.

  • There are some who say the tests will be too difficult for children in our poorer schools. Yes, richer schools may have advantages, but effort and commitment to excellence matter more. The fastest way to turn eager young students into 16-year-old drop-outs is to expect too little of them and dumb down their education.

  • I believe it is time to get serious about education. These tests will help mobilize the American people in a great national effort to raise reading and math achievement. Because this is so important for our country, I see it as a great patriotic cause. Let us move forward into the 21st century with high standards -- and let's make sure we meet them.

Sources: Daily Report Card, U.S. Department of Education


See Close-Up: Voluntary National Tests, an Education World story dated 8/8/97.

Education World®
Copyright © 1997 Education World