Battle over National Exams Likely This Fall

K-12 Testing

Contrary to conventional political wisdom, an unlikely alliance of conservatives and liberals may be able to stop President Clinton's national testing program when Congress takes up the issue in the fall.


The President's proposal is to test reading in grade 4 and math in grade 8 annually with exams that will be about 80 percent multiple-choice. Administration of the test will be voluntary for states. Individual student scores will be provided to parents and schools. After its initial administration in 1999, states would pay for the test, at an estimated cost of about $8 per student. Thus far, the project is proceeding without Congressional approval or even debate.


In early summer, contracts were let for developing item specifications. The U.S. Department of Education plans to sign contracts for test development (September), evaluation and linking to other exams (October), and licensing for administration of the exams (November).


The proposed exam suffers from numerous flaws and is not likely to provide the boost for improving education that its proponents claim. The concerns are simultaneously political, educational and technical (see Examiner, Winter 1996-97).


Opposition to the national tests has begun to develop. During this spring's supplemental budget debate, Rep. William Goodling (R-PA), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, offered an amendment to prohibit the administration from spending money on the tests, but the effort was ruled to be not relevant to the bill under debate. If he does not find an appropriate vehicle over the summer, Rep. Goodling has promised to try again this fall when Congress takes up reauthorization of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is likely that any contracts for test development will include a provision allowing termination if Congress subsequently cancels funding.


Reaction among leading education organizations is mixed. The American Federation of Teachers and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which has a subcontract to work on the item specifications, endorsed the plan.


However, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has taken the position that significantly more public discussion is needed before a decision is made about national testing. They are focusing on three areas of concern: whether the tests are even needed, whether implementation will be fair and appropriate for all students, and whether the federal government will act to prevent results from being misused.


The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) wrote Education Department Assistant Secretary Marshall Smith a letter expressing serious concerns and highlighting "several issues that must be addressed if the [national exam] is to influence mathematics education positively." The NCTM letter noted that, like most standardized exams, the national test may fail to support high quality math.


A resolution in a similar vein was adopted by the International Reading Association. It stated, in part, "Until the current inequities in the availability of resources to teachers and schools are addressed, the results of any national assessment for reading will remain limited and potentially abusive for children, teachers, and administrators."


Strongest opposition to the exams has come from conservative, states-rights groups on the one side, including Phyllis Schlafley's Eagle Forum, and, on the other, from some civil rights groups and progressive educators, including the NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund. Only six states have so far indicated they would support the exams, and some have said they will leave it up to their local districts.


Many civil rights groups have decided to see if the administration will negotiate major changes in the proposal that could make the test acceptable to them. These issues include:

  • safeguards built into contracts and enforced by the federal government so that the exams are not used for tracking, placement, or grade promotion;
  • adequate accommodations and alternate tests for students with disabilities;
  • changing the English reading test at grade 4 into a literacy test that would include at least a Spanish-language version, and perhaps other languages as well;
  • greatly expanding the constructed-response portion of the exam so that multiple-choice is reduced to about one-quarter of the score; and
  • ensuring that data is gathered and released at the local level by demographic categories such as race, gender, socio-economic status, limited English proficiency, and disability status.

Thus far, it appears that the Clinton Administration is not interested in accommodating these demands. Some analysts have questioned whether the exams will meet the standards of the recently reauthorized federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Meeting the civil rights agenda could increase the cost of the test or raise political complications. Both possibilities would make it less likely that states would purchase the tests. If the September contract for test development does not address the concerns of the civil rights groups, many are likely to oppose the exams publicly.


Some African American and Hispanic Representatives are known to be very skeptical about the tests, though as yet none has publicly opposed them. Together with those Republicans who do not want a federal exam or who generally oppose the Democratic president, it is possible that legislation to block the exams could win majority House support. A lack of enthusiasm by states could also undermine the administration's plans. On the other side, many congressional Democrats are reluctant to challenge the president or to side with Republicans, and much work will have to be done to persuade them.


Thus it appears that the decisive battles over President Clinton's version of a national exam will not take place until this fall. By then, civil rights leaders will have decided whether their demands have been adequately addressed, education groups will have determined their positions, and conservative opponents will have had time to plan their strategy. As of this summer, national tests are far from the "done deal" that many political pundits initially claimed.


-- For a packet of information, send a SASE to National Test at FairTest with .52 postage or go to our National Testing web page


-- The department has an internet web site at which lists some of the details.