Clinton Continues Push for National Tests

K-12 Testing

President Clinton has continued his push for national tests, unveiled in his January State of the Union address (see Examiner, Winter 1996-97). Clinton's plan calls for testing reading in grade 4 and math in grade 8 with tests that will be about 80 percent multiple-choice.


The president has made speeches in several states touting his plan and has enlisted a few governors from both parties to support it. His proposal has received a generally favorable reaction from many education organizations, both conservative and liberal, as well as some business groups. Already Clinton has ordered the Pentagon to require the standardized tests in Department of Defense-run schools.


A Statement of Work outlining the requirements to design the exams was prepared for public comment by the Department of Education, and the solicitation for bids to do the work was expected to be released in late April.


Opposition has come from progressive educators, who believe the plans will undermine both educational excellence and equity, and from conservative groups which oppose increased federal involvement in local schools. Some state education directors have wondered whether the tests will match state standards or whether the tests will actually lower standards. A few have said their states will not participate, while others are waiting to see what the tests look like.


It also appears there may be opposition, or at least non-support, in both parties in Congress. President Bush had proposed national exams in the early 1990s, and Congress rejected the plan. In late April, Secretary of Education Richard Riley testified before the House on behalf of the administration's test proposal.


Rep. William Goodling (R-PA), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has stated he will only support tests that produce state scores, not individual or district scores. While Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources has indicated his support, many other Democrats in both houses are not sympathetic to the idea but don't want to oppose the President. What they will do if the issue comes to a vote is therefore uncertain.


Shifting Test Plans

Clinton's proposal has already been modified to preempt some of the negative reaction. Initially he called for using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam as the basis for the grade 4 test and the Third International Math and Science Study test as the basis for the grade 8 math test. Now he proposes to use NAEP for both.


Since federal law prohibits using actual NAEP exams to obtain individual student scores, the idea is for the US Department of Education (DOE) to create new tests based on NAEP's underlying frameworks.


Some conservatives who support national testing have argued that the best thing to do is amend current law to allow use of NAEP tests. Such a proposal would certainly end the usefulness of NAEP as a monitor of educational outcomes because obtaining individual scores annually would lead teachers to teach to those tests, thereby skewing the results. Former assistant secretary education Diane Ravitch, a supporter of Clinton's plan, has called for turning the enterprise over to the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which has long advocated for more tests and an expanded role for itself (see Examiner, Summer 1996).


Apparently, the DOE believes it has enough research and development money to create the tests without specific Congressional authorization. However, to keep making the test and to pay for its first administration, as Clinton has proposed to do, the DOE will need authorization and appropriations. Moreover, the estimated cost of first-year test development has grown from $7 million to over $10 million, which could force the administration to seek authorization and funding from Congress. The DOE has released a "statement of work" to solicit public comment on the test and will then release a request for proposals to construct the exams.


The Education Department initially claimed that after the first administration, states would be charged a mere $5 per student for administration and scoring of the exam, but that price has also escalated, to $10 - 12, and the Department may seek funding to continue to pay for administration and scoring.


Meanwhile, the debate over using tests to improve education will likely escalate. FairTest has already produced materials explaining flaws in the reasoning behind the testing proposals. -- For a packet of articles presenting the case against national tests, send an SASE to FairTest. Materials on the proposed exams are available on the internet at