Right and Left Both Get Poor Marks for House Vote on Clinton Exam Plan

Always revealing, if not necessarily responsible, the House last week managed to display the worst instincts of the left and the right on a single vote.

The most debilitating impulse of modern conservatism is a feverish hostility to virtually any form of federal action; the left's greatest weakness is an excessive moral relativism that denies individual responsibility. With inadvertent symmetry, both were exhibited when an odd-couple coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats (most of them black and Latino) voted in the House to kill President Clinton's plan for voluntary national school exams.

Clinton's testing proposal is a modest idea--if anything, too modest. At his direction, the Education Department is designing fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math tests based on the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. And he is urging--but not attempting to require--the states to use the new tests to measure all students and schools against a common yardstick. So far, seven states and 15 school districts representing about 20% of all students have signed up.

This is federal involvement of the least obtrusive sort, with Washington as standard-setter and catalyst. But even that was too much for all but three House Republicans.

Some of their concerns weren't unreasonable. Conservatives don't trust the Education Department to write exacting tests. Their suspicion ignores Secretary Richard W. Riley's deep commitment to standards. But at a time when the department is weighing the theory that the University of California is discriminating against minorities because it demands high grades and test scores in its admission process, it's fair to ask whether everyone in his building shares Riley's commitment to rigorous testing.

But the Senate--which overwhelmingly approved the testing plan a week earlier--has already solved that problem by shifting control of the new tests to the same independent board that designs the NAEP exams. And in the debate over the testing plan last week, many House Republicans revealed a much deeper aversion to federal activism of any sort.

Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) got himself as worked up as a Kennedy-era conspiracy theorist raving about fluoridation. "Testing is just the next step in the liberal agenda for Washington to seize control of local schools," he thundered, as if uncovering some creeping Red plot to capture our precious bodily fluids.

The Republican recoil from national action extends beyond education. From protecting the environment to sustaining the social safety net and spurring technological research, conservatives have become enslaved to the belief that the only good thing the federal government can do is get out of the way.

The result is to leave a huge space for Clinton to attract swing voters with a program of restrained but energetic government. In a perceptive analysis of the right's woes last week, William Kristol and David Brooks of the conservative Weekly Standard zeroed in on the problem. "An American political movement's highest goal can't be protecting citizens from their own government," they wrote. "Indeed . . . some conservatives' sensible contempt for the nanny state has at times spilled over into a foolish, and politically suicidal, contempt for the American state."

Last week's House vote was one of those occasions. More thoughtful conservatives understand that national tests would complement their drive for more local control and choice in education. As local experiments increase, so does the need for a common measure to judge them. And if the right's goal is to allow parents, like shrewd consumers, to move their children to schools that produce the best results, national measurements provide the data parents need to make informed decisions.

If the right doesn't like national testing, the liberals who voted with the conservatives simply don't like testing at all. The vote was a particularly unvarnished expression of the liberal belief that standardized tests inherently discriminate against minority and low-income students because they tend to score lower on them. Better not to test at all, insisted a parade of prominent minority Democrats.

But it's no favor to graduate poor and minority kids without ensuring that they can meet basic standards in reading and math. Eventually, the job market will impose its own, less forgiving, test. "If you have any hope for the future of these kids, they have got to meet these standards," said Abigail Thernstrom, co-author of a challenging new book on race relations, "America in Black and White." And in fact, low test scores aren't an inescapable sentence. Innovative inner-city schools have raised test scores for kids from troubled neighborhoods. So have urban Catholic schools that reject what Clinton rightly calls the "tyranny of low expectations."

The left's hostility to these tests symbolizes its reluctance to impose common standards on all Americans, regardless of race or circumstances. Just as in education, liberals have long resisted tougher penalties on criminals and work requirements for welfare recipients for fear they would create an unfair "disparate impact" on minorities or the poor.

That view enfeebled Democrats, politically and intellectually. Clinton has tried to liberate his party with an alternative vision that demands all Americans accept personal responsibility for their actions--but also recognizes that government bears responsibility to enlarge opportunities for the disadvantaged. Although many on the left remain skeptical, Clinton is slowly gaining ground--a shift exemplified by the support for the tests last week from virtually all white liberals in the House.

Still the liberal-conservative revolt against the tests in the House was so powerful that even Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), the architect of the Senate compromise, now isn't sure the plan can be resurrected when the two chambers reconcile their education bills. "There is more passion in the House to kill it than there is in the Senate to retain it," Coats said. These tests won't revolutionize American education. But they could prove a valuable lever for reform. And they deserve better than to die in a cross-fire unleashed by the most ideological elements in both parties.

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday.

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