National Testing Debate to Resume

K-12 Testing

At the close of the 1997 legislative session, a deal was struck in which the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) would take charge of developing model exams, but there would be no field-testing in 1998, and no test would be administered prior to the year 2000 (Examiner, Fall 1997).


NAGB now has announced that the earliest any such tests would be administered would be 2001, but it intends to field test the exams in 1999. However, Rep. Bill Goodling, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has introduced legislation (H.R. 2846) to prohibit spending any funds in 1999 on the tests without explicit authorizing legislation. (Last year, a similar provision in the Education Department appropriations bill in the House led to the compromise with the president.) If such legislation passes as a stand-alone bill, President Clinton will certainly veto it.


Also this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) will be reauthorized. Goodling may make that legislation a vehicle for stopping the national tests, and he could try again through the appropriations process. Congressional opponents in the House include conservative Republicans and most African American and Latino representatives. Thus far, there has been no action on the Senate side in 1998.


The Test's History

In his 1997 State of the Union Address, Clinton called for a reading test at grade 4 and a math exam at grade 8, to be based on NAEP. However, unlike NAEP exams, which use open-ended items for over half the score, Clinton's "NAEP lite" tests would be three-quarters multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank. Thus, they would not assess the same complex content and level of thinking skills as do the NAEP exams.


The content of the exams remains a source of controversy. Some conservatives claim the tests will support whole language and "fuzzy math," while progressive educators believe the tests will reinforce narrow drill-to-the-test forms of instruction.


Hispanic and black representatives believe that the tests will be used punitively unless safeguards and restrictions are built in and unless adequate resources are provided to low-income students to enable them to perform well on the tests. Additionally, because the reading test will only be in English, Latinos have opposed it. Several large cities which initially said they would administer the exam, including Los Angeles, have now said they would not administer the reading test.


For their part, conservatives (and some progressives) also object to the increase in federal control over the curriculum which is likely to ensue from the tests. Despite claims by test proponents that the exams will not lead to federal control, research has consistently shown that teachers will focus on tests deemed important. Further, the president has acknowledged that these tests would be only the first two in a whole battery of federal exams. Conservatives particularly objected to having the Education Department oversee the tests, and engineered the agreement to have NAGB take over development.


Clinton undoubtedly hopes that attaching his proposal to the popular NAEP program will make Congressional passage more likely. NAGB, the board which oversees NAEP, has long promoted the idea of a national test (see Examiner, Summer 1996).


Last year, the longer the debate over testing went on, the more opposition developed to Clinton's proposal. The president continues working to win over those education and civil rights groups which have wanted to support the Democratic president but are ambivalent about or opposed to the tests. However, actions that might please civil rights groups, such as translations or safeguards, would antagonize other groups, such as opponents of bilingual education or those who want to use the results without strings attached.


Thus, the president faces an uphill battle in his efforts to create new national tests. However, opponents of the test should be vigilant and continue to keep members of Congress informed of their views.