a division of Home School Legal Defense Association
January 3, 1999

National Testing: A Federal Mandate

President Clinton first proposed a national test on February 4, 1997 in his State of the Union Address. During this speech, he revealed his ten-step plan for education reform—the first step being a national test in reading and mathematics. The President stated,

Every state and school must shape the curriculum to reflect these standards and train teachers to lift students up to them. To help schools to meet the standards and measure their progress, we will lead an effort over the next two years to develop national tests of student achievement in reading and math ... and by 1999 every state should test every fourth grader in reading and every eighth grader in math to make sure these standards are met.

This test was soon championed by Congress and the press as a voluntary program that states could choose to implement or reject. However, many home schoolers took notice when the President, while crusading for his national test before the Maryland legislature, stated that,

The federal government will not require them, but they will be available to every state and every school district that chooses to administer them. I believe every state must participate and that every parent has the right to honest, accurate information about how his or her child is doing based on real, meaningful national standards.

In response, Mike Farris, President of Home School Legal Defense, said in his July 15 Washington Times editorial, “This doesn’t sound particularly voluntary!”

American schools desperately need educational reform, but federally sponsored national standardized testing is the wrong answer. In the wake of numerous federal reform failures, home schooling parents have rejected the notion that more government programs will better American schools. Instead they are proposing a return of educational spending and responsibility back to the control of local government and parents. For this reason, the National Center for Home Education has contested President Clinton’s attempt to circumvent Congress by implementing a national test without their approval. The National Center is working to ensure that home schoolers are protected against federal invasion and burdensome requirements of a national test.

A national test is unconstitutional.

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” — The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for two reasons: 1) to protest the tyranny of King George III and 2) to establish a limited government with the maximum amount of individual liberty possible. Today, elected officials pay lip service to this same Constitution as the delineation and final authority of federal power; yet the President and many in Congress give little heed to the constitutional restrictions in the area of education. The tenth amendment specifies that, unless a power is enumerated by the Constitution, that power or decision should be left to the states or to the people. Therefore, any action to implement any national test is in direct violation of the United States Constitution and should be left to individual state governments and their people.

A national test will create a federally mandated curriculum.

The greatest danger of a national test is the federally approved curriculum it will inevitably require. University of Kansas professor John Poggio stated, “What gets tested is what will be taught.” His statement encompasses the common concern among home schools and private schools alike. If what Mr. Poggio says is true, then a national curriculum will be a definitive step toward centralized control of education and abrogation of its local governance.

In a leading federal case, Debra P. v. Turlington, the court ruled that the curriculum must match the test or else the test is invalid and can not be legally administered. Under this ruling, the President’s proposed national test must mirror the curriculum. With 16,000 different courses of study presently used by both parochial and public schools, it is currently impossible for one standard test to fit each curriculum. The only feasible means of implementing a national test would then be to establish a national curriculum, with content defined by Washington bureaucrats. As House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed out, “The idea of a Washington bureaucrat suddenly doing better at this [developing a test] than they have done everywhere else strikes me as implausible.”

A national test will not lead to higher academic performance.

Increased testing does not lead to higher academic performance, it merely shows where a student stands in comparison with other students who have taken the same test. Congressman Goodling aptly analogized the idea of increased testing to the agriculture industry, “If someone is in the cattle business, they do not fatten cattle by constantly putting them on the scales and weighing them.” In addition, he said that, “President Clinton’s plan for two new federal education tests won’t boost the academic performance of a single American child. Americans should not be misled into thinking that better tests will lead to better students.”

According to a USA Today Gallup Poll, released October 7, 1997, a majority of Americans agree with Mr. Goodling. The poll shows that over half those responding believe that Clinton’s test would either make little difference or worsen the quality of the education in public schools. In Britain, for example, a national test launched a decline in performance by forcing teachers to narrow the curriculum, teach to the test and in some instances, unethically report elevated test scores.

A national test is a waste of taxpayer money.

Many private standardized achievement tests already exist, including the Stanford Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Tests of Achievement Proficiency, California Achievement Test and Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. A national test would duplicate the role these tests already fill—frustrating and undermining all private standardized tests that presently exist—and at the same time needlessly add to the tax burden of the American family. The initial cost to implement this national test would be over $90 million dollars. However, the federal government already spends too much on testing, squandering $540 million in 1997 alone. The last thing American taxpayers need is for Washington to expand that amount by adopting another test.

A national test will penalize poor school districts and minorities.

Many minorities and their advocates are actively opposing a federal national test, including minority groups like the African-American group Project 21, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Mexican American Legal Defense and the National Women’s Law Center. Several organizations have joined together with all but one congressional black caucus member to oppose Clinton’s national test. Along with fears of a national curriculum and excessive paperwork, they believe that poor and minority students will be stigmatized by this test. Patricia E. Loera of the Mexican Defense Fund declared that because the test will not be printed in Spanish, it will “lead to the exclusion of over three million limited—English proficient children nationally” and the tests may be culturally biased.

Reprint permission granted. Prepared by the legal staff of the National Center for Home Education