With former Education Secretary William Bennett smoothing the way, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to back President Clinton’s plan for national testing of fourth-graders in reading and eighth-graders in mathematics.
The 87-13 vote came after Bennett helped broker a compromise that calls for an independent board - and not the federal government - to develop and administer the tests. States and localities would have the option of requiring students to take them.
The Senate action represented a breakthrough for Clinton’s plan, his top education objective, but the proposal still faces roadblocks.
Opposition to the tests is stronger in the House, where conservatives say they would be an unnecessary federal intrusion in local schools, and members there are expected to vote Tuesday to deny funding. House and Senate negotiators would then see if a compromise were possible.
The Senate vote drew praise from the White House, where spokesman Mike McCurry said that national testing “took a major step forward, and we believe it will prevail in the end.”
The Senate had fretted for days over the testing issue as the White House pressed for adoption of Clinton’s plan.
A standard national test, advocates argued, would identify shortcomings in the reading and math capabilities of children in specific schools, as a prelude to developing remedial programs. Most major business groups support the concept as a means of improving the basic educational skills of youngsters who will enter the work force in the next century.
“Every kid would be reading to the same standard,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “And parents all over the country would be able to know how their children are performing compared to kids in other schools.”
But opponents insisted that a new national test would duplicate existing tests, divert money that should be funneled into other education programs, and stigmatize certain racial or ethnic groups whose schools have failed to measure up to standards.
Some conservatives also felt that a national test would intrude on the autonomy of states and local school boards and lead to the gradual insertion of federally mandated “values” in local schools’ curricula.
In the House, Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, has been leading the fight against national testing as “a total waste of money” that would tell parents and educators what they already know from other kinds of performance tests.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who pushed the testing compromise in the Senate, credited Bennett - a prominent conservative who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education - with clearing the way for the agreement.
“Bennett was the go-between on this with the White House and essentially drafted the language that both sides could live with,” Gregg said. “I’m satisfied with it because it divorces the Department of Education and the National Education Association from any role in setting up and administering the test.”
Under the compromise, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGP) - an independent advisory group composed of state, city and congressional officials - would develop the tests and stake out the rules for implementing them.
It would then be up to individual school boards whether to use the tests.
Seven states - Alaska, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina and West Virginia - have pledged to participate in national testing, and 15 others have expressed interest in the idea, according to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a proponent. In addition, several large schools districts have said they would take part: Seattle; Atlanta; Broward County, Fla.; Chicago; Cincinnati; Detroit; El Paso, Texas; Fresno, Calif.; Long Beach, Calif; Houston; Los Angeles; New York; Omaha, Neb.; Philadelphia and San Antonio.
All together, these states and districts have 20 percent of the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders.