Commentary

Expanded NAEP Holds Risks

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The proposed legislative expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to provide state-by-state comparative data, both in subjects currently tested and in additional ones, holds dangerous philosophical and political implications.

Such an expansion, endorsed by U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Assistant Secretary Chester E. Finn Jr., raises especially worrisome questions when we contemplate wider testing in areas like civics and history. In recent months we have found such politically diverse individuals as Mr. Bennett, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and the television producer Norman Lear signing proclamations that call for instilling in our young people greater understanding of our democratic institutions. We must wonder, however, whether we will still be able to stand on common ground when we discuss in schools the foundations, definitions, and rationale for the "common culture" we all "share."

Will we be in agreement when we collectively select the literature and historical heroes to help form the character of our young people and restore to them their nation's heritage? Whose cultural and moral traditions within our diverse society will dictate the questions on the literature, civics, and history assessments in the "new" naep?

Perhaps some common ground can be found at the school and district levels. Even there, however, it remains to be seen whether real agreement and not just rhetoric is possible. The passage of time has eroded the exceedingly thin surface of the "common ground" on which we all stand. Reminding us of the shallowness of this surface, Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind has demonstrated our cultural decline and provoked a re-examination of the diverse philosophical traditions underlying our shared heritage. I will accept Mr. Shanker's thesis about the depth of this common ground the day he and his union members are comfortable with a 12th-grade public-school civics curriculum written by a political scientist who "happens to be" a conservative.

Although addressing some of the concerns raised by critics of the expansion, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Finn follow in their proposal most of the recommendations made last spring by the study group established by Mr. Bennett to examine the assessment. (See Education Week, March 25, 1987.) The apparent unanimity of opinion expressed by the study group, which was headed by former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and H. Thomas James, president emeritus of the Spencer Foundation, suggests that the members did not represent the real diversity of opinion existing among the various publics attentive to the thorny issues of accountability in education.

The critical points raised by the National Academy of Education, in a response accompanying the study group's recommendations in "The Nation's Report Card: Improving the Assessment of Student Achievement," failed to receive the attention they deserved.

A major point the academy made concerns the danger of assessment driving the education enterprise itself, rather than reasonably assessing a significant portion of its outcomes. Underscoring this point, the academy states: "Those personal qualities that we hold so dear--resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and car5p6ing ..." are qualities "exceedingly difficult to assess." The critique asks whether we will come to "measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured."

I find myself nodding in agreement with Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, when she says that an enlarged national assessment could have a reductionist effect on teaching, as schools compete by adopting a policy of "teaching to the test" to beat the naep rankings. It has been said that there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test as long as we design the "right test." But who, the critics of the naep expansion are asking, is "we"?

We must consider the political consequences of the proposed naep expansion. Who is going to have the authority to determine what the "right test" will look like? Under the pending legislation, students would be tested every two years in reading and mathematics, at least every four years in writing and science, and at least every six years in history, geography, and civics. In the meantime, naep is expected to conduct an expanded assessment of one subject in one grade--probably 12th-grade math--in 1990. If we are unsure of our common ground, and concerned about the implications of a nationalized assessment in turn generating national certification and curriculum, we should evaluate the results of the 1990 testing before we proceed with an enlargement of the entire assessment.

Responding to the intense concerns of critics, the Bennett-Finn legislation in its final form omits two major recommendations made by the Alexander-James report: the enlargement of naep's scope to collect "process" data on home and school influences, such as family attitudes and teaching styles relating to student achievement, and the assessment of "higher-order thinking skills" in expanded subject areas such as civics and history. In the final proposal, the term "higher-order thinking skills" has been reduced to "skills."

The Alexander-James study group had assumed that a "national community" (whatever that means) agrees on the "importance" of higher-order thinking skills, and the group's work emphasized that the "new" naep should be assessing these skills, even though, as the report candidly admitted, there is no agreement on what the term means. Reference in the proposed legislation to the focuses of assessment as"skills and knowledge" simply places in the hands of a future Education Assessment Council and Secretary of Education the power to fill in the philosophical blanks for what kind of assessment will be mandated.

If the proposed enlargement of naep becomes law along the lines now contemplated, it seems unlikely that in the long run it will reflect Mr. Bennett's vision of accountability, but rather will follow the definitions of accountability yet to be worked out by the Council of Chief State School Officers and other powerful interest groups. Instead of empowering parents and the public through school- and district-level accountability, where face-to-face deliberation is possible, the final result of this enlargement is likely to be an increase in the power of already powerful education groups to interpret to the public what accountability means.

It is not surprising that people with diverse views of education's purpose are concerned about the centralization of power involved in this proposal. People who take their own philosophy seriously are likely to take very seriously indeed the prospect that their opponents will have the power to shape education assessment. The attentive publics involved in education will not and should not lightly assume that the membership on the Education Assessment Council, the new group proposed to oversee naep, will behave like Plato's Guardians; the stakes are too high.

It is ironic that we are contemplating authorizing a state-by-state comparative assessment of what 17-year-olds "know" in civics when as adults we seem to have trouble even deciding what now qualifies a person to sit on the Supreme Court.

Perhaps nothing would better show the tenuousness of our common ground than to convene a panel discussion involving Messrs. Bennett, Shanker, and Lear in which they would tell us how their "common ground" works out in practice on issues like this one. Until we as adults restore some of the important standards for civil discourse handed down to us, it seems foolhardy indeed to attempt to prescribe a federal standard for what our young people should know.

Vol. 7, Issue 8, Page 24

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