A Yardstick for American Students

Chester E. Finn, Jr. and
Chester E. Finn, Jr. Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch Nonresident Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

February 25, 1997

President Clinton’s proposal for national testing makes sense. As former assistant secretaries of the Department of Education in the Reagan and Bush administrations, we urge Congress to support it.

There are ironies, of course. When George Bush and Lamar Alexander suggested something similar—which they called American Achievement Tests—congressional Democrats scoffed, and no such bill was ever introduced. And in 1992, when a bipartisan panel called the National Council on Education Standards and Testing recommended a form of national testing, a convoluted scheme that involved different tests based on common standards, the idea was ignored by congressional leaders and attacked by prominent educators.

Still, it was a good idea then, and it’s a good one now. In fact, Clinton’s version of national testing is better than Bush’s in these important respects: It doesn’t require any new standards or tests to be devised, and it does not hinge on dubious efforts to attach multiple tests to uniform (nonexistent) standards.

The administration has figured out that the nation already has two excellent tests that measure student achievement in reading and math, the most basic of basic skills. Accordingly, the president has proposed that states and school districts be permitted to use a respected national test for fourth-grade reading and an equally admirable international test for eighth-grade mathematics.

Nobody is obliged to use these tests, nor will anyone be punished for failing to do so. The federal government will pay for the first round of testing, and after that it’s up to states and districts to cover their own costs. They can, however, embed the national tests into their own testing programs—which virtually every jurisdiction has—and commercial publishers would be licensed to offer them, a welcome form of “outsourcing” that would hold down costs, bureaucracy and allegations of unfair government competition.

Most important, they’re good tests, incorporating standards far more rigorous than most states are now using. The reading test is based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been around for almost three decades but has never been used by districts or schools to report the progress of individual students. The NAEP reading test is solid, multi-faceted (not just multiple choice) and has rigorous standards built into it.

For eighth-graders, the White House proposes to make available the math part of the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which was given to a half-million youngsters in 41 countries. The standards of TIMSS are built into the international comparisons. It’s TIMSS results that enabled us to see that our eighth-graders perform poorly in mathematics compared with their peers in many other industrial countries.

Consider how powerful it will be for parents and teachers to compare the math prowess of their eighth-graders in, say, Phoenix or Minneapolis, to the performance of their peers in Korea and the Czech Republic. Consider the impact of parents in Denver or Boston actually seeing how well their fourth-graders read in relation to a national standard of proficiency.

According to every major public opinion poll, an overwhelming majority of the American people want national standards and tests. Until now, there has been no way for parents or public officials to get good information about how students are doing. Instead, they’ve been stuck with college entrance tests that are not representative of the full population and that, in any case, aren’t even administered until the end of high school. Or they have had to settle for “standardized” tests that yield spurious results about youngsters being “at or above grade level,” even though “grade level” is simply a statistical average, not a true standard.

Only with such information in hand can parents make wise choices among schools. Only with such information in hand can parents and legislators appraise how well their school systems are doing. Only with such information in hand can teachers and principals determine how effective their efforts are—and take corrective action where needed.

To those worried about “local control,” we say that these tests are a yardstick, not a harness. They give the federal government no new powers. The test results, in fact, will actually enhance local control by empowering consumers, policy makers and professionals to know what actions need to be taken locally to improve education. As the CEO of a major corporation pleaded at the governors’ education “summit” last March, “Why shouldn’t the reading standards for 9-year-olds in Pittsburgh be the same as in Seattle?” Math is math, whether it’s taught in Oregon or South Carolina, and the global economy in which today’s youngsters will live and work expects them to meet world standards, not just those of Portland or Charleston.

Information is power. And gathering and dispensing good information is one of the things that the federal government does very well.

So important is national testing that it must be safeguarded from politicization, a temptation that is sure to arise if the student results are as bleak as everyone expects. To prevent this possibility, responsibility for national testing should be removed from the federal Education Department (and congressional committees) and placed under the control of an independent, nonpartisan body. Fortunately, such an entity, called the National Assessment Governing Board, already exists. It is supposed to set policy for NAEP. That board, however, has been weakened by recent legislation and turned into something more like an advisory committee to consider decisions that are actually made by political appointees. The White House’s current plan to give control of national testing to the Department of Education would, we think, be a big mistake.

If Clinton will agree to turn the program for national testing into an autonomous agency, akin to the National Science Foundation (where the National Science Board sets policy) or the National Transportation Safety Board, then Congress should endorse this part of his education package. This proposal deserves their support. Once upon a time it was even a Republican idea. Now it is a good American idea.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was assistant secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board from 1988 to 1996. Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was assistant secretary of education from 1991 to 1993.