By Dan Froomkin
National tests are the key to President Clinton's education agenda. Clinton wants fourth-graders to be tested in basic reading, and eighth graders in basic math, starting in the spring of 1999.
The tests would, for the first time, provide reliable data on how many American schoolchildren are mastering the basics.
But Clinton's plan has come under withering attack and may not survive.
This essay provides an introduction to the topic of national testing.
Clinton's position is that common-sense but high-level national education standards are essential to school improvement. Tests directly linked to those standards, he argues, will demonstrate the nation's high expectations for its students and focus attention on the challenges ahead.
Students take plenty of tests already. But in the absence of national exams which are common in other developed countries states and school districts use tools and scoring mechanisms that are so inconsistent that it's currently impossible to say with any certainty what American students have or have not learned.
The current patchwork of testing reflects the decentralized nature of public schooling in America. States and school boards have traditionally resisted federal attempts to establish anything even remotely like a national curriculum, arguing that the vast majority of money for schools is raised locally, and that curricular decisions should be made locally as well.
Keeping that in mind, the Clinton national testing program was designed to avoid the controversies that have plagued other attempts to assert a more activist federal role.
But education has turned out to be one of the most politically divisive issues on the American agenda. And far from avoiding controversy, Clinton's testing plan has generated bitter and potent opposition.
House Republicans, led by Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, have attacked the plan as a costly and unnecessary power grab.
"What is the next step? Are we walking down the road to a de facto national curriculum?" Goodling asked a group of Christian educators in September. He argues that existing tests are plenty. "We don't need another test to tell us what we already know," he said.
Critics from the right also express concerns that the tests would encourage moral relativism and fuzzy thinking. The reading test, for instance, would include open-ended essay questions as well as right-or-wrong multiple-choice questions. The math test would, in some cases, give students partial credit for wrong answers as long as they demonstrated a grasp of the process required to solve the problem.
And Goodling and others are troubled by the boondoggle potential. Even on the state level, ambitious school-testing plans have often been fraught with administrative problems, delays and inaccurate results.
In an unsual alliance, some House Democrats have joined the anti-testing forces attacking from yet another angle. Many members of the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses say they oppose the plan because tests would only be offered in English and because low-income students, who generally score lower than their wealthier peers, would only be further stigmatized by the results.
Members of both parties in the Senate have been more amenable to the testing plan, though they insisted that Clinton transfer oversight from his Education Department to the nonpartisan panel that already runs the NAEP test.
Clinton and his top education advisors, especially Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, remain adamant that national testing be a part of school reform. They say that local tests are unreliable, and that low-income students will ultimately benefit more than anyone from the higher standards inherent in the program.
While the politicians battle over the plan, strong support is coming from an unexpected quarter: business leaders, particularly those in high-tech industries. Many of them see the tests as a necessary step toward higher graduation standards and a more highly skilled work force. And a handful of states and cities have enthusiastically signed on to take the tests as soon as they're ready.
Presidents talk a lot about education. But the cold reality is that they typically have little direct ability to change the schools. Faced with that fact, Clinton has latched on to one of the open secrets of education: What you test is what you get.
Clinton says the tests are not an attempt to institute a national curriculum. But they are critical to his hope of leaving a legacy in education precisely because he hopes they will force some fundamental changes in the way children are taught. The eighth-grade test, for instance, includes algebra questions an overt attempt to ratchet up the level of mathematics education nationwide. Currently, only 20 percent of American eighth graders take algebra, compared with 100 percent in Japan.
For better or for worse, national tests would give the president a potent stick and a potent carrot to influence the thousands of state and district school boards that wield the real power in American education.
Dan Froomkin can be reached at email@example.com
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