Fed. Standards, Tests Threaten Local Authority

Published November 1, 1997

Although President Bill Clinton insists that his proposed national education standards and tests for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics will be “voluntary,” concerns have been raised that the President’s plan will lead to increased federal control of education–a function traditionally left to state and local governments. Other critics have charged that the President’s proposal will result in a ‘dumbing down’ of school curricula.

“Once the federal government is using tests to shape curriculum, parental control through local school boards is doomed,” warns Senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri). He argues the tests could lead to a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum dictated from Washington that would effectively control what and how children are taught.

Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) expresses similar concerns, warning that educators will “teach the tests” in order to make sure their students score well. “What gets tested is what will be taught,” he says. “Government bureaucrats would then control the curriculum of every school in the nation and they would be able to alter the curriculum by altering the tests.”

Clinton defended himself against such criticism earlier this year. When confronted with the suggestion that his proposal constituted a federal power grab, he declared “That’s nonsense! We will not attempt to require them. They are not federal government standards, they are national standards.”

But Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, strongly disagrees. He called national standardized testing “a bold step” towards establishing a national curriculum–which, he points out, “the government is strictly prohibited from doing.” Noting that federal Goals 2000 and School-to-Work legislation have already altered the course of education in America, Bauer says that national tests would usurp even more control from the states and local communities.

Bauer also worries that the President’s proposal will result in a ‘dumbing down’ of the curriculum, concerns shared by the American Enterprise Institute’s Lynne V. Cheney, who in 1994 criticized the bias in new federally funded history standards (see sidebar). In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Cheney points out that one of President Clinton’s standard-setters, Steven Leinwand, recommended a national mathematics examination that would avoid directly assessing “certain knowledge and skills such as whole number computation.”

It is “downright dangerous,” Leinwand has written, to teach students things like “six times seven is 42, put down two and carry four,” because such instruction divides people into an anointed few who master such procedures and the many who do not. Cheney points out that California’s elementary mathematics program, Mathland, “never shows students the standard U.S. procedure for multidigit multiplication. But, in a fit of multiculturalism, it does offer instruction on the very complicated way in which the ancient Egyptians managed these matters.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].