"This should be something that has nothing to do with party politics," President Clinton said on Sept. 8 as he described one of his top political priorities. "There's no politics in this, only our children."
He was touting his plan for voluntary national achievement tests that would examine all fourth-graders for reading competence and all eighth-graders for mathematics proficiency to determine whether they meet tough standards in those subjects. He was surrounded, campaign-style, by photogenic elementary school students at a ceremony in the colorful auditorium of a public school in Gambrills, Md., halfway between Washington and Baltimore.
The setting on Capitol Hill had been very different a few days earlier when Rep. William F. Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, testified passionately against the President's test scheme: Goodling was surrounded by grown-ups in somber suits and silk ties against a background of dark wood and leather in a Senate hearing room. But the GOP lawmaker's words were almost the same as the President's.
"This has nothing to do with politics," Goodling said repeatedly. "Politics should stop at the schoolhouse door."
But the politicking isn't likely to stop over a national testing program--or any other education program sponsored by the federal government. That's because schooling, unlike most other topics, touches a nerve in the American people. What subjects children are exposed to and how they are taught provoke visceral reactions that are tailor-made for the pols of the land.
So, naturally, politics was in overload in the way that Congress reacted to Clinton's plan, which calls for implementing a national testing program by simply spending money that the Education Department already had. The department spent $13 million this fiscal year and proposed to spend another $16 million in fiscal 1998 to develop the tests, and as much as $90 million in fiscal 1999 to administer them.
Congress has split on the issue. On Sept. 17, the House adopted by a healthy margin--295-125--a Goodling amendment to the Education Department's fiscal 1998 spending bill that would prevent the department from spending any money to develop the tests. More than 70 Democrats signed onto Goodling's protest.
A week earlier, the Senate had overwhelmingly approved funding for the tests in its version of the spending bill, exacting as a concession from the White House a change in the independent board that would oversee the administration of the tests.
The two versions now go to conference, where an attempt will be made to iron out the differences. If the House version prevails, the White House has held out the option of a veto.
Lost in the fight over the appropriation, however, are fundamental policy questions that underlie the political sniping: How would national tests help improve American education? What would they measure that existing tests don't? If new tests are the solution, does the President's plan fill the bill?
Politics Not As Usual
Education policy considerations probably prompted the President's plan--along with the urging of advisers helping Clinton shop around for relatively easy ways to nail down so-called legacies. But the school testing proposal has brought to the surface conflicts that are political in practically every sense of the word: party and ideological politics, divisions between the executive and legislative branches, splits within Congress, federalism issues over local control of the schools, and arcane pedagogical politics.
"It may be just politics, but it's not normal politics," Marshall S. Smith, acting deputy Education secretary, said in an interview. (He and presidential special assistant Michael Cohen were the intellectual parents of the President's plan, which was enunciated in Clinton's February State of the Union message.) Indeed, the test proposal divides friends and draws together enemies.
The plan has mainstream, centrist appeal. Business organizations are all for it. The academic standings of American students must be raised if this country is to compete effectively in a global economy, their argument goes, and that requires tough national education standards, with tests to gauge whether students are measuring up. In fact, although Clinton as governor of Arkansas had promoted high standards and tests to measure whether students met them, this new plan is really another case of his appropriating a Republican idea. President Bush and his Education Secretary, Lamar Alexander, had proposed a more comprehensive set of tests in 1991.
The public also seems to favor national standards and tests. Thus, the latest version of the annual Phi Delta Kappa/ Gallup Poll of public attitudes toward public schools, released last month, found that 77 per cent of the respondents favored national standards, 67 per cent endorsed standardized testing to measure achievement and 66 per cent even gave the nod to a national curriculum. That politics is a factor showed up when the pollsters attached Clinton's name to the testing plan; the approval rating dropped to 57 per cent.
Goodling maintained in an interview, however, that a poll he had conducted earlier this month showed that only 22 per cent of respondents favor tests constructed at the federal level, compared with 74 per cent who wanted state or local entities to control the tests.
The notion of a national test sends shivers down the spines of the Religious Right, family advocacy groups and conservative Republicans in general, who see in it the specter of federal intrusion into state, local and family prerogatives. Vocal opposition to the plan, mounted at the last minute by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was viewed by many as his attempt to regain favor with conservative congressional forces that earlier in the year had spurned him. Yet Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a conservative who had planned to sponsor Goodling's amendment in the Senate, changed his mind and instead sponsored the amendment modifying the board that would administer the tests.
Democrats are also split. Some liberal Members of Congress, governors and mayors have come to accept standards and tests as the only way to save inner-city schools. That is the conclusion reached by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., an early skeptic of national testing who aggressively pushed for the President's plan.
But many African-American and Hispanic Members of Congress, along with civil rights and other advocacy groups, were no happier with Clinton's plan than the conservatives were. They saw the tests as simply one more public brand of inferiority that would stigmatize poor, minority and disabled students, especially in the absence of equalized financial support for disadvantaged schools.
"No testing should be instituted unless we also push some new effort to guarantee that every student gets a break in terms of learning," Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., a senior member of the Education Committee and of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview. Owens had signed a letter, which Goodling circulated among Members, opposing the test plan.
Goodling's opposition to the testing comes from a complex mixture of pressure from conservative members of his committee and the fear of stigmatizing the disadvantaged, layered on top of his 22 years as teacher, principal and superintendent of schools with the school administrator's inherent dislike of standardized tests that compare schools or school districts.
The education establishment is split on testing. Echoing some of Goodling's sentiments, the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers' union, had opposed national tests until this summer, when it adopted a lukewarm approval of some exams for certain purposes. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), on the other hand, had been an early advocate of the tests, spurred on by its late president, Al Shanker, who saw them as the only way to jump-start achievement in the inner cities.
But Goodling's political problems with the issue go beyond the plan itself. He resented the need to make policy decisions on an appropriations bill, he said, and he was bothered by the cavalier approach of the White House and Education Department.
Indeed, the Administration's handling of the proposal probably escalated what was sure to be contention into open warfare. Instead of courting congressional Republicans such as Goodling and seeking broad bipartisan support of the idea at the outset, Clinton simply announced his plan as a fait accompli.
And in a desperate drive to hold the first tests in 1999 (that is, during Clinton's term), the Education Department let contracts for test development instead of handing the project over to an independent, bipartisan entity outside the federal government, as Goodling and just about everybody else in the education community expected. In so doing, the department opened itself to criticism and speculation about test questions, teaching methods and educational theory.
"I think they could have avoided an awful lot of the grief they are now getting from conservatives if they had approached this differently from the beginning, but they were arrogant," said education analyst Chester E. Finn, Jr., a former assistant Education secretary and Hudson Institute scholar, who is now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, and who favors national tests but opposes the Clinton plan. "If national testing goes down in flames, it will be because of conservatives who hate the word `national' and liberals who hate the word `testing.'"
Not Another Test!
Why do we need another test at all, critics ask, arguing that American students are already tested too much.
"To tell the 50 percent of the students who have been told 100 times that they're not doing well, to tell them one more time that they're not doing well--what does that do to improve the situation?" Goodling demanded.
In fact, others complain, the proposed tests could make a bad situation even worse. "This is not just any old testing," Owens said. "Testing to some kind of a national standard is going to be high-stakes testing, and it's going to put a stigma on the students who don't do well--a number that will follow those students wherever they go."
Not so, reply testing proponents, who insist that these tests will be helpful to students, parents and teachers and that they are necessary precisely because they will be different from any current test.
No single test is given to every fourth-grade or eighth-grade student in the country, so there's no way to tell how the academic advancement of fourth-graders in Detroit differs from the progress of fourth-graders in San Jose, or to tell how close either group comes to meeting a national reading standard. Popular commercial standardized tests--the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, for example--provide comparisons of those who take it. But those tests are graded on a curve; they don't show whether the test takers meet a national standard.
A series of tests sponsored by the Education Department, called the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), are pegged to national standards. But only a sample of children take the tests, and the results have been computed only at the national and state levels. A few school districts are now getting their own NAEP results, but not for individual schools or students. The President's plan would convert NAEP's fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math tests into such individual exams.
"Through that one, single test administration, you would have the possibility that students in one school would know how their scores on that test compare with [those of other] students in their state, in school districts outside their state, indeed, [in] the nation as a whole," explained Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, an enthusiastic backer of the plan.
Such reporting will just lead to invidious comparisons between rich and poor schools and districts, Goodling retorts.
"That misses the point!" Ambach shot back. "What everyone is really interested in is measuring a whole variety of high-wealth districts to see which ones are producing better students, and then to measure a whole bunch of low-wealth districts to see which ones are producing higher scores." Districts with low scores would be more likely to adopt the winning practices of those that are in a similar economic position and get high scores, he said.
"These tests will make the notion of high standards very concrete," acting deputy Education secretary Smith added. "We will be able to give examples of the kinds of knowledge and skills that students will have to have to be able to do well on these tests. And we can make that information available to parents, teachers and the students themselves. In the United States, we don't very often connect the kind of student work you need to know how to do with the kind of [standardized] test we're going to give."
Critics point out, however, that in the absence of a national curriculum--which remains a huge no-no--that isn't a realistic goal. The eighth-grade mathematics test is likely to include algebra questions, although most school districts don't teach algebra in eighth grade. If the districts stick with their own curricula, the test won't be fair to the students. Smith and others hope the test will force states and school districts to teach more algebra--but some educators call that a backwards way to develop a curriculum.
"The whole purpose of these tests," Smith went on, "is to improve the lives of all children."
To Goodling, that objective "is sort of the usual Washington arrogance," he said. Setting education standards is a state responsibility, he insisted. "Here we have all these states upgrading their curriculum, testing to see whether the children are learning, and somehow or other [in the view of the Clinton Administration], that isn't good enough."
The problem, proponents of a national test say, is that what the states are doing generally isn't good enough. Whenever Education Secretary Richard W. Riley makes a speech, testifies or appears on television about this subject, he pulls out a chart showing how fourth-graders rank on state reading assessments versus how they rank on NAEP, the national sample assessment that would form the basis of the new tests. In Riley's home state of South Carolina, for example, 82 per cent of the children met the state standard; only 20 per cent met the NAEP standard. Only in Delaware was the state standard tougher than the NAEP yardstick.
Sandra Stotsky, a Brookline-based education researcher at Harvard and Boston Universities, who co-chaired a committee to draft English-language arts instruction standards for Massachusetts, takes a rather dim view of what most states are doing. "We have so many bad standards documents, poor, inadequate, weak standards documents out there," she said after reviewing the English standards adopted by 28 states, for a report published by Finn's Fordham Foundation. "So I am inclined to favor a national test in grade-four reading."
Not only do state standards range widely, but many states have an implicit policy encouraging the practice of social promotion--or advancing students with their age-mates regardless of the quality of their schoolwork. An AFT study of 85 school districts, released on Sept. 9, concluded that social promotion is "rampant."
Such variance may have been true in the past, but "the whole debate in states has shifted," said Patricia Sullivan, director of education legislation for the National Governors' Association in Washington. "There is less comfort with having poor quality standards than there used to be, because of the comparisons that are being made."
Meanwhile, business leaders say they need job applicants who graduate from schools that adhere to consistent national standards backed up by tests.
"Any major business that has offshoots all over the country doesn't set a different standard for participation in the workplace [in each area]," said Milton Goldberg, executive vice president of the Washington-based National Alliance of Business. "It has common standards, and it has common assessments. We've got to raise academic standards and student performance in this country, and raising standards without having assessments related to those standards is going to make the standards almost meaningless."
Who Writes the Questions?
If national tests are to be given, all sides agree that great care must be taken to assure that they are not federal tests. So why did the White House allow a "federal" taint to mar the proposed tests by going ahead on its own to award contracts for test development?
When considering the launching of the test initiative, the White House, aides say, tried to remove as much politics as it could. That's why Clinton proposed to test only reading and math achievement. What could be more apolitical than such basic skills? And that's also why the Administration proposed adapting NAEP, about as credible and respected a set of tests as exists in the country.
Although NAEP is under the general auspices of the Education Department, these tests are constructed, supervised and administered overall by a 26-member independent bipartisan body called the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which is composed of governors, state legislators, business representatives and a variety of educators. The logical tactic would have been to turn control of the proposed new tests over to NAGB.
There was one big problem: That was illegal. Congress had forbidden NAGB from testing individual children; it could administer tests only to small groups of students. The White House could have asked Congress to give NAGB the authority to administer this test. Goodling says that's what he expected would happen. No one will say definitively why that course of action wasn't taken, but there were political considerations: The Administration didn't want to open up a political can of worms. As it turned out, the worms got loose anyway because the White House didn't ask Congress for authority. And timing was a problem; Clinton wanted the tests given in 1999, so the Education Department needed to move quickly. Seeking a change in NAGB's authority would have taken much more time.
Instead, the Education Department asked the research arm of the Council of Chief State School Officers to convert NAEP into a single test for individual students. Currently, any one child is asked only one-sixth of the questions on NAEP. The council's job was to pare down the number of questions so one child could reasonably answer them all in 90 minutes. The reason the Education Department asked the council to head the effort was that for years, the council has held the contract to decide on the kind of questions that NAEP asks.
"We set up a very distinguished NAGB-like panel," the council's Ambach said. "It has representatives from the governors, the state legislatures, business--everyone."
To actually write the test, the department let contracts to a consortium, including the Educational Testing Service, which supervises NAEP operations; independent consulting firms; and huge commercial test publishers, including Harcourt Brace and the California Test Bureau/McGraw Hill. If NAGB or another independent body had been in charge, these same entities would probably have been given the job. The problem was political--it was the federal government who hired them.
"It is so rare that the government is criticized for moving too quickly," acting deputy Education secretary Smith said. "But that's what's happened."
Goodling mounted his offensive against the procedure, and Riley backed down and agreed to ask Congress to give NAGB authority to oversee the tests. The White House-Senate compromise would expand NAGB to include three governors (now there are two)--two of them members of the party not in the White House. But that concession was not sufficient to satisfy Goodling, who pushed his amendment barring financing for the tests through the House.
Goodling calls the national test plan "Smith's Folly." In response, Smith smiles sheepishly. "When I think of other things that were called follies--Seward's Folly for the purchase of Alaska and Fulton's Folly [the steamboat]--I have to think that I'm in good company," he said. "And I think these tests will be just as important."