|WASHINGTON, DC-President Clinton's all-out push for national tests in reading and mathematics has run into opposition from an unusual coalition of conservatives and liberals, Members of Congress, Governors and school districts. Supporters of the plan are principally the teachers unions and big business.
When it appeared that Congress would not appropriate funds for the tests, Clinton said he would move ahead with his tests anyway, on a voluntary basis, using federal funds already in the pipeline. In
August, the Clinton Administration awarded a $13 million contract for the first year of a $90 million, five-year project to get the tests under way.
But only six Governors and 15 cities signed up for Clinton's "voluntary" tests, and Clinton tweaked the Governors for "dragging their feet." Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander retorted, "It's a good idea to drag your feet if you're going down the wrong road."
Rep. Bill Goodling (R-PA), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, took up the challenge, calling Clinton's tests "the most controversial issue in Congress this year." He succeeded in getting the House to vote 295 to 195 on Sept. 16 to prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from spending any fiscal 1998 funds "to develop, plan, implement or administer any national testing program in reading or mathematics."
Clinton called the House vote "unacceptable" and said "it will not stand." He accused the House of voting "against better schools."
When the action moved to the Senate, former Education Secretary William Bennett persuaded Republican Senators to vote for national tests after moving responsibility for the tests from the Department of Education to the National Assessment Governing Board. The sponsor of the Senate compromise, Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) pleaded that "this is the best we could do in the Senate."
Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO) then announced his intention to oppose any legislation that funds nationalized individual tests because, "Once the Federal Government is using tests to shape curriculum, parental control through local school boards will be doomed."
"National tests should be shredded, bagged and hauled to the national landfill," Ashcroft said. "The House wisely voted against one penny on these tests, by a veto-proof margin. I will use all means at my disposal, including a filibuster, to oppose appropriations legislation unless it bars nationalized school testing." So far, 10 senators have signed up to join his filibuster, according to a poll by Human Events. Thirty-three Senators have signed a letter calling for the Senate to yield to the House position of a complete ban on funding national tests.
Ashcroft asserts that national tests and national standards inevitably mean a national curriculum. There is no way, academically, ethically or legally, that children can be given a valid test without first teaching them the subject matter to be tested.
The Clinton plan is to spend millions of dollars to test the reading skills of fourth graders. But he told us many times during his 1996 campaign that 40% of third graders can't read. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests show that only 28% of fourth graders read at a "proficient" level. The NAEP tests even give us comparative figures for individual states. The problem isn't that children aren't tested enough, it's that they aren't taught how to read, write and calculate.
Clinton says national tests should be acceptable because there's no difference between math and reading standards in New York, Texas or Idaho. However, teaching methods for math and reading are highly controversial, and it's impossible to construct a test without knowing what the students are being taught.
Testing for math is no longer as simple as asking what is 2+2. Will the national tests be written by those who believe it's important to learn the multiplication tables, or by those who think that such skills are obsolete because now we all use calculators? A check of the Internet shows what has happened to the teaching of math. Will Clinton's national math test be based on Old Math, New Math, Whole Math, New-New Math, Algebra Lite, or MTV Math?
In an Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal, Lynne Cheney reported that Steven Leinwand, who sits on the committee overseeing President Clinton's proposed national mathematics exam, wrote an essay asserting that it is "downright dangerous" to teach students things like "six times seven is 42, put down two and carry the four." Leinwand thinks that, since some are able to master those computations and others are not, we must throw off "the discriminatory shackles" of computations. How can we have a national math test if those in charge think it is unfair for students to be expected to do simple multiplication?
Mrs. Cheney learned what's wrong with national standards from bitter experience. When she was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she awarded a contract to develop national standards for U.S. history. The result was so infused with anti-American "political correctness" that the U.S. Senate denounced the standards by a vote of 99 to 1.
The gulf between the different systems of reading instruction is even wider. Will Clinton's national reading test be written to test students who have been taught intensive, systematic phonics, or those who have been taught Whole Language?
The plan to administer Clinton's national reading test only in English is even more controversial. For this reason, many urban school districts, including Houston, El Paso, and Los Angeles, have dropped plans to give the reading test.
The math and reading tests will become the control mechanism by which the federal Department of Education will determine the content of local school curricula. It doesn't really matter whether the feds actually prescribe the content and the methodology, or whether the feds just write the tests and then the local schools "teach to the test."