National Test Scheme Resurfaces

K-12 Testing

Supporters of the federal No Child Left Behind law have launched a new effort to create some form of national exam. Proponents cite discrepancies between state test results and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as evidence that a national standard is now needed. Proposals for a national test have previously been defeated, and some pundits think the idea will gain little traction beyond a limited set of policy elites.

In September, former U.S. Education Secretaries Rod Paige and William J. Bennett co-wrote a Washington Post commentary titled "Why We Need a National School Test." They argued that NCLB is not working because "most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems."

While plugging pet theories such as school choice and the notion that more money does not produce better educational results, they argue that the only way to make NCLB work is for federal officials to impose a consistent standard via a national test, publicize all results down to the school level, then "butt out."

These arguments may sound familiar. In fact, they rehash previous efforts to implement a national test. President George H.W. Bush proposed such an exam, which was defeated in Congress primarily by Democrats. FairTest played a key role in marshaling education and civil rights groups to block that scheme. President Bill Clinton's administration began to use general Education Department appropriations to develop a national exam, until Congress barred anything more than item development. That prohibition was initiated by a coalition of conservative Republicans and African American and Latino Democrats. (See Examiner Winter 1990-91, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Winter 1991-92, Fall 1992, Winter 1996-97, Summer 1997, Fall 1997)

The right-wing Fordham Foundation, headed by former Education Department officials Chester "Checker" Finn and Michael Petrilli, has been a major supporter of NCLB. It now supports the view propounded by Bennett and Paige. Fordham released a report in August entitled To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America's Schools. Contributors to the report included philanthropist Eli Broad, former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, and Hoover Institution fellow Diane Ravitch, who proposed four approaches to national standards:

1. Mandatory federal standards and assessments to replace the current state-by-state system.
2. A voluntary version with federal incentives to states (e.g., more money, fewer regulations) to opt into such a system.
3. Federal incentives for groups of states to collaborate on developing common standards and tests.
4. More "transparent" state standards and tests, made easier to compare to one another and to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

 In January, Sen. Ed Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the Senate's education committee, introduced a bill encouraging states to peg their proficiency levels to those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He proposes that NAEP would be updated to set "a national benchmark that is internationally competitive."

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Dodd (R-CT), the second-ranking Democrat on the education committee and now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, joined with Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, (R-MI), in proposing legislation to reward states that adopt voluntary "American education content standards." The National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, would supervise development of the standards. To obtain the awards, a state's test would have to be aligned with the standards. Forty groups across the political spectrum endorsed the Dodd-Ehlers bill.

Neither of these Congressional initiatives would create a national exam, but both pave the way toward that end. Yet, there's no evidence that national tests will help improve U.S. schools. They are costly and irrelevant to many real educational needs and distract attention from developing solutions to real problems (such as making high-quality assessment part of professional development so teachers can learn effective ways to use assessment results to help students progress). They also perpetuate the illusion that education can be improved if only there is a "good test" to define educational outcomes and control curriculum and instruction.

- For more information, see FairTest's fact sheet on national testing is here.

- At press time, Kennedy's legislation was not available through Congress; his press statement about the bill is at

- Similarly, Dodd's presentation about his bill is at

- It takes a while, but legislation is posted at