Clinton pitches new test to class President takes case for reading exam to Maryland school

September 09, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

President Clinton celebrated International Literacy Day with a visit to an Anne Arundel County elementary school yesterday, where he saluted children in an advanced reading program, borrowed a book from a student and pitched his own plans for nationwide standardized testing directly to the children who would be tested.

Toning down his rhetoric on what is becoming a partisan issue, the president touted his national testing plan in soft tones -- and manageable words -- for his audience of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Four Seasons Elementary School in Gambrills.

"Do you believe all children can learn to read?" Clinton asked the children. "Would you like us to find out, so that if somebody is not reading well we can teach them to read well? It would be unfair to leave somebody behind, wouldn't it?"

The students happily answered "yes" to each of the president's questions, but on Capitol Hill the issue is trickier than yesterday's session might suggest.

The chief opposition comes from Republicans who have denounced the program as expensive, redundant and illustrative of one-size-fits-all Washington thinking.

"The president's plan is a waste of taxpayer's money," said Rep. Bill Goodling, the Republican chairman of the House education committee as well as a former teacher, coach and school board member in Pennsylvania.

"I strongly support higher academic standards, but I strongly oppose new federal tests," Goodling said. "House Republicans would rather send dollars to the classroom, bolster basic academics and increase parental involvement." The tests -- proposed for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math -- are projected to cost about $100 million per year.

The president has told the states that their participation would be voluntary and the federal government would pick up the tab.

The plan has been embraced by six states, including Maryland, and 15 of the nation's largest school districts. But some liberal lawmakers and teachers groups fear that test results might stigmatize immigrant and minority students, and diminish respect for the public schools.

Clinton's response is that the tests will help educators, lawmakers and parents determine which schools, school districts and even states need attention.

"Even though English and reading is the same in Maryland as it is in Montana, and mathematics is the same in California as it is in Maine, there is still no national standard to say whether every child has learned to read well enough," he said here. "So that's what we're trying to do."

The president is expending political capital to try and make it happen.

National standards in education was the subject of his address to the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis in February -- and of a subsequent speech in North Carolina.

Last week, Clinton took time out of his vacation on Martha's Vineyard to visit an elementary school on that Massachusetts island to express his displeasure at Republican attempts to kill his testing program.

Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, yesterday reiterated the administration position that removing $13 million in seed money to develop the tests -- as Goodling is attempting to do this week -- would make veto-bait of the huge spending bill for the Department of Education working its way through Congress.

Clinton's audience yesterday seemed oblivious to the machinations of Washington politics, but thrilled to see the president in the flesh.

The students also connected better with Clinton's remarks about his plans to bolster early childhood reading than with his comments about national testing.

"I love reading," third-grader Nicholas Pietrowski volunteered while awaiting the president's appearance.

Eight-year-old Kari Mencik, a pupil in a third-grade class, fidgeted nervously as she awaited the president. Asked if she was excited, she smiled and replied: "Big time!"

About 20 well-scrubbed kids who participated in a voluntary summer reading program were assembled on a makeshift stage sporting T-shirts with the slogan, "Educating Everyone Takes Everyone."

When it was time for the program to begin, several top Maryland Democrats, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer walked in, each holding the hand of a child in identical T-shirts.

"Life-long memories are being made for all of us today," school Principal Lorna Leoni told the children and faculty. "It's a great day for Four Seasons."

When it was his turn to speak, Clinton delighted the students by asking all those who had read a book this summer to raise their hands. Every hand shot up.

"One of the most important things we are doing is to support a program called America Reads," Clinton explained. "We're trying to get up to 1 million people all around the country to help parents and teachers make sure every single third-grader in America can read independently by the end of that third grade. And I think that's a very good thing to do. It's obvious that all of you are doing that now."

Clinton was introduced by a Four Seasons student, fifth-grader Jonathan Knobel, who wore a blue suit and black shoes. Jonathan was invited to read a passage to the president from a book he'd been reading, a fictionalized account of the Civil War battle between two iron warships, the Monitor and the Merrimack. The book is called "Eben Tyne, Powdermonkey" by Patricia Beatty and Phillip Robbins.

After presenting the book to the president, Jonathan got a big laugh from the audience -- and the president -- when he quietly added that Clinton has about 10 days to read it. It's due back at the county library Sept. 18.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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