President Clinton opened a “back to school” push to salvage his national education testing plan Saturday by promising a rewrite to assuage Republican fears of federal power over local schools.
“I intend to do whatever is necessary to move forward,” the president said in his weekly radio address broadcast from Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his family are halfway through their three-week vacation.
Under the rewritten plan, math and reading tests for the nation’s schoolchildren would be developed by an independent bipartisan board, rather than the Education Department.
“This will make sure these tests measure what they should - nothing more, nothing less,” Clinton said.
The Education Department, long under fire, has more recently been slated for extinction by congressional Republicans who view the federal bureaucracy as anathema to the tradition of local control over schools.
Clinton’s olive branch did not sway the GOP chairman of the House Education committee from his staunch opposition to the overall plan.
Thinking national performance tests will improve education is “akin to claiming that better speedometers make for faster cars,” said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa.
“The president’s plan is a waste of taxpayers’ money and won’t do anything except increase federal involvement in our schools.”
Education officials expect it would cost $16 million to develop the tests initially and $100 million per year thereafter to update and administer them.
“House Republicans would rather send federal dollars directly to the classroom,” Goodling said.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, based in Cambridge, Mass., urged Congress to block funding for the testing plan when it takes up the budget bill for the Education Department.
“You don’t fatten cattle by weighing them more often, and you don’t improve student learning by giving more low-quality tests,” said Monty Neill, associate director of the nonprofit group, which promotes fair testing.
Saturday’s exchange between Clinton and Goodling hinted at barbed partisanship to come as the president planned to dedicate most of September to his testing cause. Congress returns this week from its August recess.
Since Clinton first called in his State of the Union address for higher national standards and performance testing, the movement has lagged. Only six states and 15 major school districts have signed up for the 1999 testing.
But even as Clinton aimed to accommodate Republican opponents, his aides gathered ammunition against them. The speech writers’ early drafts of the radio address proposed a much more confrontational tone and the White House communications and research office sought to paint Goodling as having flip-flopped on the issue after supporting voluntary testing in 1992.
In the radio speech, Clinton said he was encouraged by a new government report that found student achievement in math and science improved during 1996. The National Assessment of Educational Progress also found, however, that students from grade school through high school still cannot read or write any better than before.
“Reading scores are stable - which is not good enough. We can do better,” said Education Secretary Richard Riley. “And high school juniors need to take their writing skills much more seriously if they expect to do college-level work.”
Even though officials considered the data on writing to be less reliable because of scoring difficulties, results were disturbing. Scores for 11th graders dropped both since 1994 and 1984.
At the same time, the percentage of 17-year-olds watching three to five hours of television a day increased from 26 percent in 1978 to 39 percent last year. The percentage who read for fun daily dropped from 31 to 23. The percentage of those who said they never read for fun rose from 9 to 16.
xxxx REPORT ONLINE The report is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.ed.gov/NCES/naep