Congress Puts Clinton Test Plan on Hold

K-12 Testing

An unusual coalition of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats has rebuffed President Clinton's plan to introduce national tests for US school children. FairTest was instrumental in mobilizing the civil rights constituencies and in educating members of Congress on both sides of the aisle about the downside of the ill-conceived testing proposal. The organization had played a similarly successful role in defeating President Bush's national testing plan in 1992.


Clinton was clearly on the losing end of the test plan compromise, which won overwhelming approval in November as Congress raced to finish appropriations for the current fiscal year. While Clinton had sought to test all fourth graders in reading and eighth graders in math starting in 1999, under the final agreement hammered out with Congressman Bill Goodling (R-PA) no national exams may be administered prior to 2000. Next year, the issue of approving and funding Clinton's proposed exams will be back before Congress.


Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences will conduct three studies: (1) to determine if an equivalency scale can be developed that would allow scores from commercially available state exams to be compared with one another; (2) to evaluate the quality, validity, design and/or bias of test items already developed by the Department of Education; and (3) to recommend safeguards that would ensure the tests are not used in a discriminatory manner.


In addition, the compromise transfers test development from the federal government to the National Assessment Governing Board, a quasi-governmental body of political appointees that currently oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered to a sample of students nationwide to compare student performance across states.


Clinton said he will press Congress to approve funding for national exams during hearings next spring, but he will face an uphill fight. Although political pundits initially claimed the plan was virtually certain to pass, in fact, support was lukewarm at best. Despite vigorous arm-twisting by the president, only half a dozen states and 15 districts signed up to participate in the first year.


Meanwhile, conservative forces began actively fighting the proposal, largely based on their fear it would lead to a national curriculum. Progressives, led by FairTest, joined conservatives in an uneasy but effective coalition. A key objection was that the plan lacked safeguards to prevent test results from being misused to limit opportunities for disadvantaged students (see Examiner, Winter 96-97, Spring 1997 and Summer 1997). Both sides ageed the tests would be a waste of time and money if not accompanied by concrete action to improve the quality of education.


As the debate dragged on throughout the fall, Clinton apparently realized his choice was between a decisive no vote and a not now, maybe later position. Meanwhile, the greatest benefit from all this may be that questions about whether these kinds of standardized tests are either fair or useful have been debated publicly, likely fueling greater skepticism about such exams at the state and local levels -- not just national -- in the future.


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National Testing