Brave new world: Right and left flip-flop on testing

This commentary originally appeared in slightly different form in the October 21, 2007, Washington Times.

A decade ago, when President Bill Clinton's "voluntary national test" proposal was crashing on the rocky shores of a Republican-controlled Congress, scholar Chester E. Finn, Jr. quipped that national testing was doomed because conservatives hate "national" and liberals hate "testing."

That may have been true then, but it doesn't appear true now. Consider the results of a recent national survey by Education Next, a journal published by Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Among other things, it asked a representative sample of 2,000 Americans, "Under No Child Left Behind, should there be a single national standard and a single national test for all students in the United States? Or do you think that there should be different standards and tests in different states?"

It wasn't even close; national testing won by a landslide. A whopping 73 percent of respondents wanted a single test (a Fordham Institute survey in early 2007 showed 57 percent of Ohioans want a single national test, see here). What's even more surprising, though, is that Republicans were more likely to support this idea than Democrats--77 percent to 69 percent. As for ideology, those self-identifying as "extremely conservative" were by far the most enthusiastic about national testing: an incredible 88 percent of these adults voiced their support, versus 64 percent of liberals.

National testing has become a conservative position. Yet the conventional wisdom in Washington is that national testing is a "third rail"--too hot for any politician to touch, especially because of conservative and Republican resistance. A staffer for liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate education committee, told me the idea was "like vouchers," i.e., radioactive. Why are their perceptions and these poll numbers so far apart?

To be sure, there's a certain brand of traditionalist conservative activists who abhor national testing, such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. She managed to derail Mr. Clinton's national testing proposal and would no doubt try to do it again. And support among conservatives would drop precipitously were the federal government put in charge of setting the national standards and tests--or if the move signaled greater federal control over local schools.

But the idea of setting a "single standard" clearly appeals to conservatives. After all, setting different standards for different people--think affirmative action, for instance--is an idea most associated with the Left.

And it's not a moment too soon to set such a single standard. Consider the findings of The Proficiency Illusion, a study published this month by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association. It found the difficulty of tests used to gauge student proficiency in reading and math under the No Child Left Behind act varies wildly from state to state, with some passing scores set at the sixth percentile and others set at the 77th.

This has real-world implications in classrooms. In Wisconsin, for instance, fourth graders have to demonstrate no more than a minimal reading ability in order to be considered "proficient," while their peers in Massachusetts have to decipher texts as tough as Tolstoy. Which "standard" do you think will result in a stronger education? And why should Milwaukee youngsters suffer because Badger State bureaucrats hold such low expectations for them?

As Congress updates the No Child Left Behind act this fall, lawmakers from both parties should embrace a common-sense approach to national testing. They should stop allowing each state to set its standards willy-nilly and remove the Fantasyland provision that 100 percent of schoolchildren reach "proficiency" by 2014.

Just as important, Washington should resist the urge to set the national standards and tests. Instead, Congress (or presidential candidates) should call on the nation's governors to come together, form a commission to set rigorous expectations for all students, and agree on a "single standard" for the nation as a whole. Republicans, especially, ought to get cracking; their "extremely conservative" base is waiting.

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