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Education Reporter
Number 136 EDUCATION REPORTER May 1997

E.D. Ready to Begin National Tests
Congressmen and states not convinced, but big business is on board

WASHINGTON, DC - President Clinton's call for a national testing program has elicited a letter from four Republican Congressmen questioning the Administration's authority to make such a "major change in federal education policy" without the consent of Congress. Clinton has made the voluntary tests the number-one priority of his second term.

Rep. Bill Goodling (PA), chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. John Edward Porter (IL), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education, and Reps. Peter Hoekstra (MI) and Frank Riggs (CA), both members of the education committee, signed the March 5 letter to the Department of Education (ED).

In his March 19 response, Acting Deputy Secretary Marshall S. Smith, speaking for the ED, stated that Department officials do not believe they need additional authorizing legislation to develop and distribute the tests to states and school districts. The Department plans to use money from an existing fund under the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Smith cited a price tag of $10 million for test development the first year, up from the original $7 million estimate one month ago. The second year, Smith projected, the cost may rise to $12 million.

However, by 1999, the testing project would need more money from Congress for that year's and possibly subsequent years' administration costs, Smith said in his letter. With new tests created annually, the ED expects yearly costs to hover between $10 million and $12 million per year. Projected per-student costs have also risen from $5 to $10-$12 per pupil.

The two proposed national tests, which would measure reading abilities in the 4th grade and mathematics skills in the 8th grade, are slated for 1999. The tests would rely on the framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams, but would contain new questions. The Department plans to award contracts worth $9 million over the next few years to nongovernmental groups to rework the tests. Lynne Cheney, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, warns, "If those groups are so inclined, they can turn out a product that differs significantly from the model, just as outside groups did in the last round of standard-setting."

The citizens' board governing the NAEP, the National Assessment Governing Board, "currently has no relationship to the national tests," wrote Smith.

In contrast to the NAEP, the program would establish the first federally sponsored national tests that would supply results on individual students' performances. The congressionally mandated NAEP, run since 1969, reports on national achievement levels and does not provide individual results.

The States Balk

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a group representing the states' top education officials, has adopted a one-page resolution supporting Clinton's testing plan for 4th and 8th graders. Henry R. Marockie, the group's president and the superintendent of West Virginia Schools, is convinced that the tests will "raise standards."

However, dissenters within the group express caution. Some say they would prefer to use their own state testing programs; others are waiting to learn the details before signing up.

Gary Huggins, executive director of Education Leaders Council, a group started by a number of state superintendents and board members, expresses hesitancy about Mr. Clinton's testing plan. "Our states are real concerned about the bar being lowered," he said. "I don't see them doing a national program that will do anything but that."

Anne C. Fox, superintendent of Idaho, plans to ignore Clinton's program and continue to use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for students in the 3rd through 11th grades.

Utah also appears ready to turn the plan down. Barbara Lawrence, Utah's coordinator for evaluation and assessment said, "We get all the information we need from NAEP." Clinton's proposal "introduces more testing into our system and is not worth the effort and the funds."

Barbara Nielson, South Carolina's education commissioner, questioned the Administration's motives for wanting to begin administering the test in two years. "The rush makes me wonder whether it's political, or what's best for the kids."

Illinois superintendent of education, Joseph Spagnolo, told Department of Education officials that the plan will "be a very tough sell" to governors, legislators, and state school boards whose approval are needed for state participation.

Although the details are yet unknown, officials in Michigan, Maryland, and North Carolina have already announced their intentions to adopt the tests. Military-run schools have no choice; Mr. Clinton has mandated the 233 schools operated by the Department of Defense to administer the assessments.

Business on Board

At a recent White House meeting, more than 200 executives of technology companies pledged their support of the national tests. The business community will promote Mr. Clinton's tests in meetings with local officials and through media campaigns, according to John Doerr, a partner in a California company that underwrites technology businesses. At Al Gore's request, Mr. Doerr has rounded up support from CEOs at companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and America Online.

"It's a very smart strategy to get CEOs involved," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "If you get the money people on board, it changes the geometry of it."

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