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8 Southern States Consider Pilot Project a Success

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State officials who are unsure about participating in the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress--the first that will allow state-by-state comparisons of student-achievement data--can look to the South for guidance.

Between 1985 and 1987, the Southern Regional Education Board conducted a pilot project to compare student achievement across states.

While each of the eight participating states had different goals for the project, most officials involved agree that the undertaking was a success.

The states, they say, gained information that was previously unavailable on how their students' performance compared with those in other states and in the nation as a whole.

And, they add, the project demonstrated that states can muster the cooperation needed to reach agreement on test items, administer the test efficiently, and report the results fairly.

"We wanted a nationwide program," said Mark D. Musick, vice president and director of state services and information for the sreb "The best way to promote a nationwide program was to prove that a [regional] program would work and that states would participate."

"In 1983," Mr. Musick added, "people felt states would never participate. But the fact that more than half the [sreb] states signed up for an experimental program that involved risk proved the testing was technically feasible."

'Measuring Progress'

The board launched the project in December 1983, Mr. Musick said, in response to a call from its chairman, then-Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for "the South to be the leader in measuring educational progress."

"There was a feeling," Mr. Musick said, "that we were going to need more information on student achievement if we were interested in keeping educational improvement on the front burner."

The board contracted with naep--which members considered to be a credible program, easy to explain to the public--to test 11th graders in participating states.

In 1985, three states--Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia--agreed to test students in reading. The following year, five additional states--Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia--tested their 11th graders in reading, and the eight states tested them in writing. In 1987, those same eight states tested 11th graders in mathematics and U.S. history.

If the project had continued, Mr. Musick said, many more states would have participated.

"Each year, somebody asked in a state not participating why they were not participating," he said. "That's increasingly difficult to answer."

'Seeds Were Planted'

State officials involved in the project say it was a valuable experiment in interstate cooperation.

But Joy McLarty, Tennessee's former testing director, said the national project may prove more difficult to administer, since all the states would have to agree on all decisions. "It would get harder if you had more states," she admitted.

Moreover, she said, "if more pressure is put on the system for a state to show up well, some problems might be harder to solve."

In the pilot project, Ms. McLarty said, "there wasn't a lot of pressure to beat other states."

The bottom line, said Lois S. Rubin, supervisor of testing for the Virginia Department of Education, was that the s.r.e.b.project enabled states to gain more information about their students' level of achievement.

And while such information may not directly lead to specific improvements, Mr. Musick noted, it could help states move toward progress.

"It got people asking questions," he said. "Some seeds were planted, and questions were asked that states had not asked before."--rr

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