Commentary

Advocating an Expanded NAEP

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Onalee McGraw's recent Commentary ("Expanded NAEP Holds Risks," Oct. 28, 1987) is a provocative piece, raising legitimate concerns that anyone must address who advocates, as U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and I do, an expanded National Assessment of Educational Progress as a powerful source of information about what our students are achieving.

Ms. McGraw raises two major points that often elicit controversy. These issues center around the role of the federal government in education. Though they are legitimate concerns to raise, we have considered them and have built responsible mechanisms into NAEP for dealing with them.

The first relates to her claim that an expanded NAEP will give rise to a movement toward a national curriculum. The report of the NAEP study group, headed by former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and H. Thomas James, president emeritus of the Spencer Foundation, and the pending NAEP legislation have taken great care to build in checks and balances to prevent this from happening. The new NAEP would have its policies shaped by a broadly representative, nonpartisan, independent governing board. Its role would be to make the crucial decisions, based on a wide spectrum of advice, about what should be assessed and how results should be reported.

The tests would involve fewer than two percent of the nation's schoolchildren, and different youngsters in different classrooms would be involved each time the tests are administered. Moreover, the actual construction of the tests--the writing of individual questions--would involve hundreds of people with a variety of views and expertise. Finally, the questions within each subject area would change with each assessment cycle. By the time the test results became available to the public, NAEP would already be developing new questions for the next assessment.

Under these restrictions, there is no chance that NAEP will yield a ''national curriculum." I don't want a national curriculum. Neither did the study group. Nor does Secretary Bennett. But there is no reason to fear that an expanded NAEP would bring one about.

This leads me to Ms. McGraw's second point. She claims that a national consensus cannot be obtained in literature, civics, and history. She may be right; she may be wrong. Granted, these subject areas tend to attract the most diverse opinion and contentious debate. But we will never know unless we try.

The Education Department has described as an "experiment" a project we are co-funding with the National Science Foundation to develop consensus objectives in 12th-grade mathematics. Some experiments work, and some do not. So, using one grade and one subject area, we are going to test this process in 1990.

If NAEP is able to achieve reasonable consensus on learning objectives, collect state-by-state data in a consistent manner, and provide a timely and useful report, then we will go forward with more subjects in more grades. If the experiment fails, we will reconsider the enterprise.

It may be difficult to reach reasonable consensus in some subject areas, such as civics and history. In other subject areas, we believe there probably is substantial common agreement today about basic skills and fundamental knowledge. These basic skills have gained acceptance through the influence of national subject-area associations, nationally marketed textbooks, and nationally standardized commercial achievement tests. During each testing cycle, NAEP would assess only a fraction of this common core of the curriculum.

We should remember, too, that participation in NAEP is completely voluntary. Any state, school district, school, parent, or student who disagrees with the assessment's objectives can decline to participate.

Ms. McGraw's essay has recalled some of the thorny issues with which the Alexander-James study group struggled. I believe she overinterprets the constructive caveats raised by the National Academy of Education in its commentary on the study group's report. At the same time, she ignores the explicit nae statement that changing the design "to facilitate the collection of data and reporting results for individual states" was one of the Alexander James recommendations with "obvious merit" that deserved "strong endorsement."

The academy also stated, "It is puzzling that the federal government routinely supports the collection and dissemination of statistics on the condition of our economy, our health system, and even the incidence of crime but places so little priority on the condition of our schools. A regular, thorough examination of schooling is one of our federal government's most important tasks in education. This sense of the nation's need for good information about its schools was established by Act of Congress in 1867."

I agree with the National Academy of Education that this federal role still remains important today.

Vol. 7, Issue 11, Page 19

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