The Magazine

THIS ISN'T ONLY A TEST

Jul 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 44 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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The saga of national education testing won't surprise those who have watched other reformist projects turn sticky and foul after brushing against the twin tar babies of the federal government and the education establishment. Once again, a worthwhile idea for upgrading American education is being muddled beyond recognition.

The tale begins in the 1980s, when governors like Lamar Alexander and Bill Clinton realized that the effort to reform U.S. schools and boost student achievement would never get far until clear academic standards were set, solid tests put in place, and real accountability mechanisms installed. It's impossible to make a successful journey if you cannot state your destination and have no markers of progress along the way. Nor should one expect much from school-choice policies -- vouchers, charter schools, and the like -- absent clear information for parents on the performance of individual schools.

The federally funded testing program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had long reported only nationwide averages rather than offering a sense of the differences among the various states and school districts. By 1988, NAEP was changed to permit state scores and comparisons between states; and in order to distance it from the tar babies, an independent governing board was appointed to oversee the testing. For two years, I had the privilege of chairing that board, and we sought to ensure that the assessment content was sound, the tests challenging, and their results reported in relation to standards (how well should kids be doing in 8th-grade science or 4th-grade reading?) instead of simple averages and percentiles.

In 1989, George Bush and the nation's governors met in Charlottesville. There they set ambitious national education "goals" to be attained by century's end. Gov. Clinton, especially, toiled into the wee hours to draft them. Yet one essential ingredient was still missing: standards-based tests that would allow for comparisons between school systems, schools, and schoolchildren. A governor could find out from NAEP how his state was doing but not how Memphis was performing as opposed to Nashville, much less Nashville versus Milwaukee. Nor could the Robinson family see how little Jonah and Jonetta were doing compared with how they ought to be doing, or whether the Franklin School had higher achievement than the Jefferson.

There are hundreds, even thousands, of extant tests, but none of them was -- or is -- quite right. The "standardized" kind that most school systems use doesn't actually contain any standards -- and is prey to the notorious "Lake Wobegon" effect whereby everyone is told he is above average. State testing programs don't allow scores to be compared across jurisdictions. Even NAEP is still barred from reporting on units smaller than whole states. College entrance tests such as the SAT and ACT aren't taken by everyone -- and in any case they are no help in the elementary and middle grades.

U.S. testing in 1997 resembles a faulty model-airplane kit in which the pieces cannot be fitted together. Yet for those who believe in standards- based tests, test-based accountability, and results-based education reform, this is a plane that needs to fly.

In 1991, Bush and then-education secretary Lamar Alexander proposed a new nationwide testing scheme called "American Achievement Tests," but Congress would have none of it. NAEP's governing board suggested that NAEP tests be made available for district and school-level testing, but the education establishment -- and commercial test publishers -- rose up in outrage. The independent board was punished for its hubris in 1994, when Congress stripped away much of its independence.

Re-enter Bill Clinton, first with a wretched program called Goals 2000 that was long on federal control of state and local reform plans but short on testing and accountability, and then, just this January, with a proposal for national testing.

Initially, Clinton's January proposal seemed modest and workable. He offered the states voluntary tests of 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math -- nothing more -- based on the tests and standards already in use by NAEP at the national level. At little cost to themselves (there would be a federal subsidy, of course), states could use these tests to find out how their school systems, schools, and children were doing. The tests would also be accessible to individual communities, private schools, someday even parents.

Gov. John Engler immediately signed Michigan up, and several other states have since agreed to join. Clinton is barnstorming the land to recruit more. Judging from the many presidential events and speeches in which it now stars, the testing plan has become one of his top education priorities.