The Magazine

THIS ISN'T ONLY A TEST

Jul 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 44 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Alas, the plan had one surpassing flaw. While it was said to be "based on" NAEP's carefully developed tests and standards, Clinton was not actually going to use those tests and standards, nor did he propose to entrust the new venture to the board I once chaired. Rather, the Department of Education -- without explicit congressional authority -- would use discretionary dollars to launch the test-development process by contracting with a private organization. The independent board would control neither test content nor standards. Instead, the executive branch would.

Immediately, the scholar Diane Ravitch, the Education Leaders Council (a group of state education officials who don't toe the establishment party line) , and I urged the administration to reconsider. We said that national testing had merit -- but that anything so sensitive as these tests must be run at arm's length from the government and education-establishment tar babies. It also seemed that Congress should have something to say about the arrangements for so momentous a shift in American educational federalism.

There has been no effort to address our concerns. The Education Department has been rushing to put the original plan into operation. The independent board has been marginalized. Congress has been stiffed. Critics have been ignored. And to the extent that one can forecast real harm from procedural missteps, damage lies ahead. As often in education-reform efforts, the procedure has been hijacked by the tar babies. The hijacking takes the form of contracts that are already being signed with neither congressional approval nor independent oversight.

The main contract so far is with the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop test specifications. "The chiefs," as they're known in educator- land, are the Washington-based association of state superintendents, and they form one of the establishment's most change-averse crews. The chief of the chiefs, Gordon Ambach, is a former New York state commissioner of education, staunch advocate of a larger federal role in education -- a key backer of Goals 2000, for example -- and a veteran federal grant-getter. He and his group have an ancient and cozy relationship with the Education Department and can be counted on to do its bidding, down to such particulars as Spanish- language math tests and other worrisome wrinkles in the Clinton plan.

A Berkeley, Calif., consulting firm has been engaged to help the chiefs with this project. They've named three new panels: two "content committees" to shape the reading and math exams and a "National Test Panel" to advise on the whole process. (A fourth committee, to furnish "technical" advice, will appear any day now.) Several meetings have been held, and draft specifications are due this month. By September, the Education Department will let contracts for actual test preparation. A huge consortium of private testmakers and publishers is positioned to get the job -- at a pricetag rumored to be near $ 50 million. The plan is to have these tests ready to roll in 1999.

For a new federal project, it's moving extraordinarily fast, apparently so that binding commitments can be made during the current fiscal year and before Congress cranks up to do anything. (House education-committee chairman Bill Goodling, himself a former school superintendent, dislikes tests that allow children and schools to be compared and has tried -- so far without success -- to attach a killer amendment to various bills.)

In truth, it's moving far too quickly for something as momentous as national tests in a country that never had anything of the sort before. But haste isn't the main problem. What's most alarming is that these tests will be creatures of the education establishment and prone to its postmodern curricular faddishness.

Consider these clues:

First, the contractor is in charge of its own advisory committees. Rather than an independent board that sets policies and tells the contractor (and the executive branch) what to do, the chiefs -- in consultation with hierarchs at the Education Department -- have their own handpicked panels, yet remain free to ignore them.

Second, the committees are narrowly based. Whereas NAEP's independent board contains governors, business leaders, local school-board members, and parents, the chiefs' new National Test Panel consists almost entirely of experts, interest-group representatives, and -- surprise -- several chiefs. Nobody knows whether it is bipartisan.