The Slate Gist

National Education Standards

Public education is traditionally a state and local responsibility in the United States. Yet many people feel that poor public schools are a national problem. President Bush proposed national standards for primary and secondary education, and so has President Clinton. Yet many ardent supporters of national standards under Bush, such as former Education Secretary Bill Bennett and former Humanities Endowment Chairman Lynn Cheney, are leading the opposition under Clinton. What changed?

Last January, Clinton ordered the Department of Education to prepare exams to test fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. These are the first nationwide tests designed to compare student performance across states and school districts. Participation by school districts is voluntary. A bipartisan, independent federal agency will supervise the drafting and administration of the tests. By making reliable comparisons possible, the new national tests are supposed to create healthy competition among schools, giving them an incentive to improve.

The Senate has approved the spending of federal money for this purpose, but the House voted last month to prohibit it. Clinton says he will veto the entire Education Department appropriation if a House-Senate conference committee sustains the ban.

Three camps oppose the bill. One, including Bush/Reagan education officials Bennett, Diane Ravitch, and Chester Finn, supports the idea of testing but opposes Clinton’s version. Finn and Bennett consider testing a necessary precondition for school vouchers–a favorite conservative remedy that would allow parents to choose among schools. Without reliable testing, they believe, parents cannot be good “consumers.”

But this group says that Clinton has politicized the test, caving in to left-wing pressure groups. Although the test is being drafted by independent contractors such as the Educational Testing Service, these critics see the hand of liberal Department of Education administrators. Early versions, they say, reward left-wing pedagogical approaches like “new math,” which, they say, wrongly de-emphasize old-fashioned computation. They complain that the fourth-grade math test can be taken in Spanish.

The Bush administration’s plan was more comprehensive. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander proposed to test fourth graders, eighth graders, and 12th graders in five different subjects, including American history. (Designers of the Clinton plan limited testing to reading and math, avoiding sensitive subjects like history in the hope of avoiding arguments over politicization.) The Bush proposal, which was never prepared as legislation, would also have created a bipartisan, independent agency to draft the tests. Although Clinton recently modified his proposal to give control to an independent board, he allowed the Department of Education to participate in the early stages of test preparation. When so charged, the Clinton people retort that the independent board will have ample opportunity to amend the tests if they are too easy or ideologically skewed.

Asecond camp of conservative opponents, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the religious right, dislikes any version of national testing. This group believes that the standards are a way for liberals to establish a national curriculum and usurp local control of schools. At the very least, they say, schools are forced to tailor curricula to the test. They believe that all attempts at establishing national curricula will be riddled with ideology and partisan politics, and cite the controversial history-curricula guidelines drafted by the Department of Education two years ago.

The third category of opponents comprises liberals, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who argue that low test scores stigmatize minority students as “inferior,” when in fact poor schooling and other disadvantages are to blame for their performance. The test scores, they say, will be used as an excuse to pour resources into a few select schools, harming the kids left behind.

However, many liberals who opposed the Bush testing plan have thrown their support behind Clinton’s initiative. For instance, the National Education Association–the largest and most powerful teachers’ union–long opposed testing, fearing that teachers whose students performed poorly would lose their jobs. But the NEA has now given Clinton’s plan at least nominal support.

Only six states and 15 big-city school districts have agreed to give the test. The reason for their reluctance: A national test could be embarrassing and disprove claims of improvement based on other, less-than-neutral testing regimes. For instance, Colorado school administrators like to brag that their state’s average SAT score is the highest in the country. However, most college-bound Colorado students take a different college entrance exam, making the SAT an unreliable measure of school quality.