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National Testing: Blueprint for Disaster

February 1, 1998
By Cheri Pierson Yecke

As part of President Johnson's "Great Society" in the 1960s, our government created an expansive, nationalized welfare system. The intentions were good and honorable, and the goals were compassionate . . .

As part of President Johnson's "Great Society" in the 1960s, our government created an expansive, nationalized welfare system. The intentions were good and honorable, and the goals were compassionate . . . yet now it is widely agreed that these social programs spawned unintended consequences few could have foreseen.

In 1996, Congress agreed that the federal welfare program had become an out-of-control monstrosity. A profound level of control was returned to the states, so that each could tailor its program to fit its own unique circumstances.

Each state is thus becoming a living laboratory in which different and varied programs are underway. States can learn from the successes and mistakes of others. Some programs will become models to be emulated and modified, while others will be discarded. As a country, we will discover successful welfare reform models through individual state efforts.


Ominous Parallels

There is an ominous parallel between federal control of the welfare system and the Clinton administration's attempt to nationalize American education through national testing. The national dialogue on rigorous, challenging standards has just begun. National testing, however, may effectively close the door on this dialogue: National testing is a back-door attempt to impose national standards.

What sorts of standards might result? It is unlikely that they would be based on rigorous and challenging content, as are the award-winning standards in my home state of Virginia. Far more likely, nationally imposed standards would be dumbed down versions of political correctness.

The federal government's track record on educational standards is a national embarrassment. It spent $2.2 million to write national history standards that were the epitome of political correctness, widely repudiated and soundly rejected.

President Clinton scoffs at such concerns, saying "Algebra is algebra." Secretary of Education Richard Riley agrees, saying "Reading is reading. Math is math. For these basics, let's not cloud our children's future with silly arguments about federal intrusion."

At best, such flippant rhetoric suggests a frighteningly simplistic understanding of highly complex and controversial education issues. At worst, it reveals the politicians' ignorance of the desperate battles fought every day by parents across America on behalf of their children's education. If "reading is reading," then why does there rage a national controversy over phonics and whole language? If "math is math," then why the outrage in districts that have introduced "fuzzy math," "new-new math," and "rainforest algebra"?


Americans Reject Federal Involvement

I find it highly ironic that an administration widely criticized for being overly enamored with polling data nevertheless refuses to recognize the American public's opposition to increasing the role of the federal government in education.

In 1994, Public Agenda published "First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools." The group asked Americans to indicate how much they trust certain education decision-makers. Of the 12 decision-makers listed, parents in the community were ranked number one, with 67 percent of the survey respondents identifying them as the people who could best be trusted with education decisions. At the bottom of the list, with only 14 percent of the public's vote, were the elected officials in Washington.

Similar findings were reported in the 1995 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. Sixty-four percent of those responding would give the federal government less influence than it currently has in determining the education programs of local public schools.

Proponents of national testing point to the 1997 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, claiming that 57 percent of the survey respondents support President Clinton's proposal. But consider how the survey question was worded:

President Clinton has proposed that the performance of the nation's public schools be assessed according to how well students score on achievement tests at two different grade levels. In general, do you favor or oppose this proposal?

Notice that respondents were asked about the use of "achievement tests" in general, not about new, national tests. How many of those who were asked this question assumed that "achievement tests" meant the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford 9? Those are the tests with which American parents are familiar. If little more than half of the survey respondents favored such a vague notion of testing, how much weaker would be the public's support for the President's plan?

I found the results of another recent survey to be far more telling. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans polled by the National Constitution Center could correctly answer at least eight of ten basic questions about the Constitution. This appalling lack of knowledge is not limited to everyday Americans. Many of our politicians in Washington--elected representatives who should know better--are operating under the delusion that the federal government has a Constitutional role to play in the education programs of the states. It does not.

Our Tenth Amendment states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

Nothing could be more clear. The federal government needs to stop micro-managing state affairs, and decreasing its role in education would be a good place to start.

To our good fortune, 295 members of the House of Representatives--over two-thirds of the members, Republicans and Democrats alike--recognized this fact and voted to halt funding for the President's testing scheme. In doing so, they wisely recognized that the opponents of national testing are not merely voicing "silly arguments about federal intrusion," but rather legitimate and valid concerns.


Violating its Own Rules

The President's proposal does, after all, fly in the face of a number of existing federal regulations. The Department of Education Organization Act (DEOA) provides that "The establishment of the Department of Education shall not increase the authority of the Federal Government over education" (section 103). In subsection (b), the Act continues: "No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize . . . any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum (or) program of instruction . . . of any educational institution, school, or school system."

Similarly, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), in section 14512, states that nothing in the act shall be construed to give the federal government the authority to "mandate, direct, or control" a state's curriculum.

It thus appears that this administration's efforts to impose national tests are, at best, circumventing the law; at worst, a brazen and illegal power grab.

More than a decade ago, Dr. George Roche, the president of Hillsdale College, foresaw what loomed on education's horizon. In 1985, he warned that

Federal efforts to intervene in the workings of the nation's school systems are ill-advised, wasteful, and counter-productive. . . . Increasingly over the last few decades, the education bureaucracy has come to believe that they, not parents, know best how to educate America's children. They have come to see themselves as "change agents" whose mission is to reform outmoded notions children have picked up from their parents and substitute instead a new system of values. . . . And this questionable enterprise has been fostered and financed by the federal education establishment.


Standing on Principle

Opposition to President Clinton's testing proposal includes a long list of individuals and organizations representing an amazing diversity of ethnicity, cultures, and political viewpoints. These include the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Mexican Legal Defense Fund, People for the American Way, the Family Research Council, the American Association of University Women, Concerned Women for America, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the National Council of LaRaza, Eagle Forum, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights . . . the list goes on.

All of these groups have one thing (and in some cases, only one thing) in common: They do not support the President's national testing scheme.

Now is not the time for compromise. It is time to stand on principle, and to loudly and clearly "just say no." No to increasing the federal education juggernaut; no to a proposal that is unconstitutional; no to a scheme that violates long-standing federal regulations; no to pre-empting the currently robust national dialogue on standards; and no to the de facto imposition of a national curriculum by way of national testing.

Americans have witnessed the out-of-control growth of the federal welfare state, and we learned the hard way that such top-down programs do not work. Congress has done the right thing for the country's welfare system, reversing course and returning power to the states--where decisions can be tailor-made to fit each state's needs.

Let's not ignore the lessons we've learned. We need to return control over education to the states . . . and rejecting the President's national testing program would be a very good place to start.


Cheri Pierson Yecke is a member of the Virginia State Board of Education. This article is based on remarks she delivered to the Education Leaders Council Conference in Dallas, Texas on September 19, 1997.

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