The Washington Times
November 17, 1998

Freedom, education survive threat of test

By Michael Farris
The Washington Times
November 17, 1998

President Clinton’s call for a new, federally controlled achievement test was killed quietly in the huge omnibus spending bill that marked the end of the 105th Congress.

Home schooling families were the key grass-roots opponents of this so-called reform. Sen. John Ashcroft, Missouri Republican, and Rep. William F. Goodling, Pennsylvania Republican, led the fight for the “no national test” position in their respective chambers and deserve the thanks of every American who loves freedom and sound educational policy.

There is no question that Americans are concerned about the state of our nation’s public education system. And, yes, something must be done to rescue millions of students from a system that seems unable to deliver a consistently high quality of basic instruction.

Parents want to know what is going on in schools. Given that desire and the concerns about quality, national testing has some inherent appeal to those who consider the idea casually. But it is a political idea that doesn’t stand up well under closer examination.

First, Mr. Clinton’s national testing plan would not have told parents what they most need to know about their children’s education: how their own children performed on the test. While state and local school districts would have been reported—and possibly the scores of individual schools—individual test scores would not have been reported.

Parents care a little about how their state stacks up. They care more about how their school district or individual school compares to others. But what they really want to know is, “How is my child doing?” Mr. Clinton would have kept parents in the dark on that point.

Second, Mr. Clinton’s plan for a national test inevitably would have led to a national curriculum. When school districts are given high stakes tests, they teach to the test. Every school in America would have been coerced to follow the curriculum that most closely matched this particular test. And given the recommendations for “politically correct” thinking we have all seen coming from national education panels, there is no doubt that this test would have resulted in less instruction in important skills in reading math, history and science.

Third, although Mr. Clinton argued that this test would be “voluntary,” it must be remembered that this promise came from a man who calls taxes “contributions” and debates the meaning of words such as “is” when he is under oath. Despite his “voluntary” rhetoric, he also was on board with who contend that children in all schools should take this test.

It was his “all children” rhetoric that caught the attention of home schoolers. At least as we define those very ordinary words, “all children” includes those who are taught at home by their parents.

Fourth, this test represents one more government intrusion into the proper sphere of private enterprise. There are a half-dozen or so well-recognized standardized achievement tests. Schools can pick among these commercially developed tests to find the one that most closely tracks their own curriculum or values. Home schoolers and private schools can and do choose tests that they believe are best for their individual circumstances.

Any of these privately developed tests will tell parents of all children in all schools what they want to know: “How is my child doing?”

All of these tests paint a similar picture—and it is not a pretty one—concerning public education. Another test would not improve the quality of the picture. Only a different approach to instruction would do that. Centralized education decision-making has been the vogue for a long time.

Maybe in the arena of public education, it is time to allow individual public school teachers—supervised by both principals and parents—to take charge of public school decision-making.

Education works best when people who see the children on a daily basis make the decisions that count. Mr. Clinton shouldn’t decide which test children take. The U.S. Department of Education shouldn’t decide, either. Neither should state bureaucracies.

Education works best when teachers, parents and principals control it, and those are the people who should make testing decisions for public school pupils.

In the case of home schoolers, the parents make the decision. Home schoolers are conducting a 1.7 million-student experiment, which proves that the ultimate in local control of education—works very well indeed. Whenever the next grand schemer decides to help “all children” with his or her latest centralized plan, we will be there to stop that person. We believe that all children are helped when we help keep education out of the hands of those who believe that big, centralized programs work best.

Michael Farris is the father of 10 home-schooled children and chairman of the
Home School Legal Defense Association

Copyright 1998 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. Visit our web site at