Clinton Proposes National Exam, Again

K-12 Testing

In his State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton revived a proposal soundly defeated during the Bush administration to create national exams, this time to test reading in grade 4 and math in grade 8. Earlier this decade, FairTest organized the successful campaign to halt far more extensive proposals for a national exam (see Examiner, Fall 1992, Summer 1991).


Responding to President Clinton's proposal, FairTest called it "a step backwards in school reform" and a "return to the fraudulent notion that you can improve educational quality by imposing more tests."


The statement noted, "Since test driven reform did not work when he was governor of Arkansas, how can Bill Clinton logically expect the same approach to enhance academic performance nationally? His proposal fails the test of serious education reform."


According to Clinton's proposal, the reading test would be based on the current National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which now samples both test items and students to obtain data at the national and state levels (see Examiner). The math test would be based on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which was the basis for a recent international comparison of student achievement.


Reasons for opposition

There are a number of important reasons for rejecting Clinton's proposal:

  • U.S. students are already the most tested in the industrialized world, and Clinton's proposal will make it worse. All but a few states test students in both reading and math on a regular basis. The President's plan is simply overkill.
  • Believing we can improve schooling by adding one more test is like believing we can fatten cattle by weighing them more often. Not only is the claim wrong, it also deflects attention from more important issues and wastes limited resources.
  • Enhancing teachers' ability to assess all children accurately and fairly in order to improve instruction is what schools most need in the area of assessment. This requires a serious commitment of time and money for teacher professional development. Another "accountability" test does nothing to meet this need.
  • A national test will push teachers to teach to what is on that test. Most major tests are rather narrow and limited. Teaching to them means that curriculum often gets watered down, and instruction is often dumbed-down to test coaching by drill-and-kill methods. While coaching can improve test scores in the short run, it does not improve learning in the long run and therefore also runs counter to the desire for high standards for student learning.
  • Proponents of more tests like to claim that having these tests will increase student motivation. However, research shows that testing reduces motivation for many students. Teaching to the test usually produces a boring curriculum that turns many children off from learning. Instead of learning to like education, kids learn to dislike school. The end result is that instead of improving achievement, for many students more testing will actually reduce real achievement.
  • Whoever controls the test will strongly influence the curriculum of all the kids in the country, even if it is a "voluntary" test. While President Clinton claims it will be voluntary, his proposal creates a slippery slope downhill to a full-fledged national exam that will establish a de facto national curriculum through the back door. For example, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was created, the public was told there would never be state scores. Now there are. When Congress authorized state scores, the public was told there would never be individual scores. Now that is exactly what Bill Clinton wants, as apparently does the National Assessment Governing Board which oversees NAEP (see Examiner, Summer 1996).
  • Once NAEP produces individual scores, not only will it control curriculum, but neither the public nor educators will be able to distinguish what kids really know from what they just memorized for the test. A useful monitoring device NAEP will have been altered to produce more redundant comparative data about kids.
  • One form of assessment cannot adequately or fairly assess all students equally well, due to diversity in learning styles, cultural backgrounds, and social experiences. For reasons of cost and convenience, one form or a limited range of forms of assessment most likely will be used.
  • Finally, once the exams are in place, higher-stakes consequences are likely to follow for both individual students and for schools. Damaging effects, such as retention in grade for not passing the test (called for by President Clinton at Education Summit II last summer), will most heavily impact students who attend schools which receive the least financial support, disproportionately students of color and those from low-income families. While holding schools accountable for properly educating their students is desirable, doing so on the basis of a test score is neither reasonable nor helpful. Richer, stronger and more useful forms of accountability can be and are being developed (see Examiner, Summer 1996).


A packet of articles on the previous proposal for a national exam is available from FairTest; send a SASE with $.52 to "National Test" at FairTest.