CHICAGO — President Clinton on Tuesday firmly called on all public schools to end the "social promotion" of poorly performing students, even as a joint congressional committee appeared ready to kill his proposal for voluntary national education standards.
Clinton endorsed a pioneering program under which the city of Chicago has tested tens of thousands of students for promotion and held back unprecedented numbers who failed to meet academic standards.
At the same time, Clinton directed the Education Department to help other school districts replicate another cornerstone of the Chicago reform: aggressive intervention by local school officials to seize control of failing schools.
"I want what is happening in Chicago to happen all over America," Clinton said in an appearance at an elementary school here. "I challenge every school district to adopt high standards, to abolish social promotion, to move aggressively to help students make the grade through tutoring and summer schools and to hold schools accountable for results."
Clinton's embrace of the Chicago reforms sharpened the lines in a dispute over education standards that has set him against both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.
From one side, congressional Republicans are saying that Clinton's call for voluntary national tests in reading and math would undermine local control of education.
House-Senate conferees, who are scheduled to begin meeting today on the principal education spending bill, are expected eventually to approve language that would bar the Education Department from developing those tests.
Late last week, some House Republicans floated an alternative plan that would fund the National Academy of Sciences, as well as groups representing the governors and state legislatures, to develop a system for comparing the results of existing tests already used in the states.
But amid continued resistance from conservatives to the entire national testing idea, Republicans have not reached agreement on that proposal. In any case, White House officials said that alternative is unworkable and would prompt a Clinton veto of the massive spending bill for the Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments. "It's unacceptable: done, period," said one senior White House aide.
However, Clinton's remarks Tuesday appeared aimed less at conservative than liberal complaints about the push for more testing and standards.
The trend toward greater use of testing has sharply divided Democrats. Proponents, such as Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley, argue that by increasing expectations tougher tests will encourage better performance from all students and ensure that they graduate with sufficient skills to enter the work force.
But many liberals and civil rights groups fear that more testing will put low-income and minority students, particularly those in the most troubled schools, at a disadvantage and cast a stigma on them. Those sentiments led almost all African American and Latino legislators to oppose Clinton's national test proposal when the House voted to kill the exams last month.
Using some of his strongest language yet, Clinton Tuesday rejected the left's arguments against more testing. "Ending social promotion does not put children down," he said. "It gives us a chance to lift all children up. We are not punishing children by making sure they know what they need to know and that when they move from grade to grade it means something."
Clinton added: "We don't do anyone--especially our poorest children in our toughest neighborhoods--a favor by giving them a pass on high standards."
Chicago is at the forefront of efforts to impose higher academic standards through increased testing. Under a sweeping 1995 reform plan that gave Daley control over the school system, the city now requires students in the third, sixth, eighth and ninth grades to pass math and reading tests before they are promoted. Students who fail the tests must attend summer school.
Last summer, Chicago spent some $45 million on summer school for nearly 41,000 students. While most students passed the tests after the extra instruction, nearly 11,000 third-, sixth- and eighth-graders are being held back this fall; another 5,500 ninth-graders who failed the exams are being forced to repeat math or reading courses.
Several parents and teachers attending Clinton's speech praised the tough new Chicago standards. "It was a social injustice when they first started promoting children who hadn't passed a grade," said Ralph Turner, a retired Chicago police officer with a sixth-grader at the Oscar Mayer School, where Clinton spoke. "The education system was copping out."
Chicago has also increased its intervention in schools with large numbers of poorly performing students. More than one-fifth of the city's 557 schools are now under formal probation, which triggers increased oversight, and Chicago schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas has "reconstituted" seven of the most troubled schools, requiring all principals, teachers and even janitors to reapply for their jobs.