Proposed national tests for mathematics should allow only limited use of calculators, Education Secretary Richard Riley said Thursday. He also ordered a temporary halt in test development.
The announcement came as House and Senate negotiators prepared to wrestle with two extremely contentious education issues while working out an $80 billion spending bill. The bill funds the Education, Health and Human Services and Labor departments for the budget year starting Oct. 1.
Disputes over national testing and control of $13 billion in Education Department aid programs have caused Clinton to threaten a veto. Senators from both parties threatened on Thursday to block debate on the bill.
Riley’s statement on calculators took a step toward appeasing critics who say the test design favors a less than rigorous approach to teaching mathematics. The nonbinding position goes against the advice of a panel created to decide what should be in the test.
The Senate approved the testing proposal, 87-13, this month after putting control of the tests in the hands of an outside governing board. An alliance of liberals and conservatives in the House rejected the plan, 295-125.
“I consider our 295-125 vote to be veto-proof,” said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Republican Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri and 26 other senators urged in a letter this week that Senate negotiators go along with the House.
Opponents say the tests of fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math would lead to a national curriculum, take away local control of education, be used to discriminate against disadvantaged minority children and promote “fuzzy” teaching of math.
In a statement, Riley tackled the math criticism. He also said the contractors writing the tests would not be given the final specifications to work with until the matter is resolved in Congress.
The National Test Panel, which wrote the test specifications, recommended that students be allowed to take their own calculators to the 90-minute tests.
But Riley said the tests should allow only limited use of calculators for advanced problem-solving in algebra and geometry, where students may need to find square roots or exponents.
That is the approach used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to a sample of students nationwide to measure trends. The individual tests would be based on the national assessment.
“In my view, a test of eighth-grade students should measure, as NAEP does, whether students have learned how to do arithmetic accurately without a calculator,” Riley said. “But a visit to any good eighth-grade classroom will show students who have moved beyond arithmetic to more advanced topics.”
Gail Burrill, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and a member of the advisory panel, said she was disappointed. Without calculators, there aren’t enough questions to test both arithmetic and more advanced skills.
The council rejects the “fuzzy” label, saying children are learning more advanced mathematics earlier by understanding problems rather than just applying formulas to them.