Tests should not be only focus Standards: President Clinton's proposal for national reading and math evaluations misses the need for schools' improvement.

The Education Beat

November 05, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A DEBATE OVER President Clinton's proposed voluntary national testing in reading and math is holding up an $80 million appropriations bill in Congress.

What's behind it is this: Conservatives in Congress and academia are worried that national testing, even if it is voluntary, would lead eventually to a federal school board that could impose a national curriculum on 15,000 school districts.

Clinton and his Education Department are well along in planning for the tests of reading in the fourth grade and of math in the eighth. So far, there's no indication that anyone wants to impose a federal curriculum, but no one has attempted a national testing program before, and nerves are frayed.

What the conservatives fear is the spread of "foolish ideas," in the words of former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Lynne V. Cheney. She's talking about "whole-language" reading instruction and its first cousin in mathematics.

The conservatives call the math version "fuzzy math" or "whole ++ math." They say it substitutes "feel-good math" for the "basics." Whole math appears to have taken root in California, not coincidentally the same garden where whole language flourished the early '90s.

Whole language is a philosophy more than it is a program, holding that reading is only a part of what students need to know to be proficient in the language arts.

The problem is the failure to distinguish between curriculum and standards. It's through the curriculum -- what is taught and how it's taught -- that students learn and grow to meet (or not to meet) standards.

In the "Reading by 9" series in The Sun, reporters found a wide variety of curricula, even within the same school, and the nation has only patchwork standards. But standards can be established and tested on a state and national basis. All but die-hard conservatives recognize this, and some have been saying it all along -- even lobbying for it.

One of these is Christopher T. Cross, former president of Maryland's State Board of Education and president of the Council for Basic Education. Cross and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick were the first state-level education leaders in the nation to endorse Clinton's call for national testing.

"My support for the proposal is based on the very simple premise that parents and taxpayers have a right to know how their children and schools are doing when compared with the nation as a whole," says Cross.

Cross says it's reasonable and possible to insulate the policy-makers on national testing from partisan politics. He also says it's reasonable and possible for Congress to be involved with the decision to create voluntary national tests.

He may be naive on both counts.

A congressional compromise on the matter fell apart late last week. Forged by the House-Senate appropriations conference committee, the pact would have allowed the Clinton administration to continue developing the tests and field-testing them. But it would have given Congress the right to review the tests and decide whether to permit them to be administered.

One thing is certain: No test ever improved a school on its own. The Clinton proposal, loaded as it is with partisan politics, should be allowed to fly if boosting achievement in reading and math is its only goal.

Testing business creates minor industry

Testing is big business. Millions of dollars have been committed to the national tests that might never get off the ground, and a minor industry of consultants, contractors and subcontractors has sprouted, much of it inside the Washington Beltway.

Several former Maryland state testing officials are involved. Paul Williams, Gary Phillips, Steven Ferrara and Mary Crovo Clark all held major jobs in the state Department of Education in the '80s and early '90s, and all are in key assessment jobs at the federal level.

Cross' Council for Basic Education also has a contract to coordinate the national advisory committee for the testing program.

Latin Day conference attracts 1,300 students

More than 1,300 Maryland students attended the annual Latin Day conference yesterday at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Because it was Election Day -- at least in some parts of Maryland and the nation -- the conferees discussed Julius Caesar as politician.

Judith Hallett, chairwoman of College Park's classics department, said Latin lives and thrives. It has the third-highest enrollment among languages in Maryland high schools, Hallett said.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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