Clinton faces testing war

President Clinton looks set for a hard battle to make national standardised tests a legislative priority this autumn.

The president wants American schoolchildren to be tested in reading and maths in the fourth and eighth grades so their performance can be measured against a uniform standard to determine where improvements can be made.

But the proposal faces extensive opposition from an unlikely coalition of conservatives who want less - not more - central government involvement in education and liberals who fear the tests would be used to compare rich and poor school districts or prevent students from advancing to the next grade.

There is virtually no chance that the idea will pass through Congress, according to key representatives and senators who want to bar the government from even working to develop such tests. Mr Clinton had asked for $100 million to begin that process, but the House of Representatives has turned him down.

The 90-minute tests would be based on the existing National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures learning in a number of subjects but is used only randomly for statistical purposes and without identifying individual scores.

The new tests would compare individual student achievement with fixed standards of prevailing expectations determined by the National Assessment Governing Board, an independent agency created by Congress.

That provision was meant to derail criticism that the standardised tests would be politicised, favouring teaching approaches that ignore basic mathematical computations and an understanding of the parts of speech so that linguistic minorities, for example,would not feel disadvantaged.

"This test, if developed, will give a bad name to testing," predicted Republican former US Education Secretary William Bennett, a vocal critic.

The Republican Congressman William Goodling, the influential chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and a former teacher, said national reading and maths tests would serve simply to lower the self-esteem of poorly performing students.

"You don't fatten steers by weighing them. You don't build faster cars by adding one more speedometer," said Mr Goodling. He urged that more resources should go instead towards classrooms, instructional materials and teacher training.

Republicans are capitalising on Mr Clinton's difficulties to push for their own educational priorities: government support for alternatives to public schools, including vouchers for parents who choose to send their children to parochial or private schools.

Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Economic Club of Detroit that the president was concentrating "on the wrong end" of education by calling for more central government involvement in the form of tests.

"He's focusing on Washington bureaucracy, Washington regulations and Washington red tape," Mr Gingrich said. "We believe he ought to focus on local parents, local students and local teachers."

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