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Archive for Sunday, September 2, 2001

WKD-Bush test plan panned

September 2, 2001

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The proposal by President Bush to test all students from third grade through eighth grade sailed, in varying forms, through Congress and is awaiting action in a House-Senate conference committee.

But since that initial success, state officials nationwide, including Kansas, are rising in opposition.

The Bush plan "has started to smell like the two-week old tuna salad sandwich that you left in your desk," said David Shreve, a Washington, D.C., policy expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Even in Republican-dominated Kansas, state officials are trying to derail the Bush plan.

Kansas lawmakers who deal with education issues, both Republican and Democrat, had drafted a strongly worded letter to Bush, stating that Kansas was satisfied with its own way of testing students and keeping schools accountable.

House Speaker Kent Glasscock, R-Manhattan, and Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson, ordered the letter be toned down, but even after editing last week, the underlying message of the letter to Bush was clear: Don't mess with Kansas.

Lawmakers and educators say they fear the cost of the testing, believe the amount of testing will overwhelm classroom instruction, and think it will usurp the state's own testing regime and efforts to improve schools.

In short, they say, Bush's plan sounds like a good idea, but on closer inspection, it will hurt schools.

Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the Bush plan reminded him of a quip used by former President Reagan.

"He used to say, 'What are the 11 most frightening words? I am from the government, and I am here to help.'"

Accountability

Bush has touted the need for frequent standardized testing to monitor student progress and identify ailing schools.

Under the Bush plan, after a couple of years, if certain levels of progress aren't met, schools would face sanctions, in addition to being labeled as failing.

Bush says that makes educators and administrators accountable for their work. His proposal, he has said, "challenges the soft bigotry of low expectations."

In a recent speech at an elementary school in New Mexico, Bush said, "I love coming into a school district where I hear the superintendent and principals say, go ahead and measure us. We're confident that we've got the right curriculum. We're confident we've got the best teachers possible.

"It's those school districts and states I get a little nervous about that say, we don't want any accountability. You see, that to me seems like an excuse to mask failure."

Marlene Merrill, director of assessments for Lawrence public schools, said Kansas educators already are made accountable by a well-planned series of statewide and district tests.

"I don't want to see what we have worked hard to put in place in Kansas replaced by something else and controlled by someone else," Merrill said.

In Kansas, statewide assessments are given in math in grades four, seven and 10; reading in five, eight and 11; science in four, seven and 10; and social studies in six, eight and 11.

Increasing the number of tests will not only increase the cost to the state but also force teachers to increase the time spent drilling students on the tests instead of providing other educational opportunities, she said.

Kansas already spends about $1.5 million per year on statewide tests.

The cost of testing all students in four subjects for each grade from three through eight would cost between $8 million and $10 million annually, according to Alexa Pochowski, assistant state commissioner of education.

Pochowski said the plans in Congress would help states pay for development of the tests but not for the annual administration of the tests.

Opposition mounting

Democrat U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, who represents Lawrence, voted for Bush's plan, though Moore's office said Moore hopes the conference committee changes the bill to allow Kansas to use its own testing in place of any national test.

U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun, a Republican in the neighboring district, was one of the few congressmen who voted against the Bush bill because he opposed the national testing provisions, his office said.

Shreve said both houses passed the bill before many of the details had been debated. Now, as the measure sits in conference committee, opposition is increasing, he said.

"It's a 1,000-page bill, so it has taken people a long time to voice their complaints," he said.

And Kansas is not alone in trying to persuade Congress to change Bush's plan.

Recently, the National Governor's Assn., in a letter, told the conference committee to make the testing requirement flexible.

"It is important the federal government respect the individual state assessments systems," Govs. John Engler, R-Mich., and Paul Patton, D-Ky., said in the letter. The conference committee is scheduled to continue working on the education bills next month.

-- Staff writer Scott Rothschild can be reached at (785) 354-4222.

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