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NAEP Board Sidesteps Tussle Over Cavazos' Authority

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Washington--The governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress has sidestepped a confrontation with the Education Department over how much authority Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos will have over board policies.

Members of the governing body had viewed Mr. Cavazos' insistence on reviewing staff hiring decisions as a threat to their independence. Although the Secretary did not overrule any of the board's choices, members said, the action left them feeling they had "half a loaf" in decisionmaking power.

At a meeting here Sept. 15, however, Undersecretary of Education Ted Sanders told board members the department's lawyers have concluded that the Secretary was within his rights to review the decisions. Moreover, he said, the Secretary's actions were "not inconsistent" with the board's autonomy.

In response, board members agreed not to challenge Secretary Cavazos' authority unless a conflict arises.

"We could have a continuing fracas over abstractions, or try to be pragmatic and see how it goes," said the board's chairman, Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. "We'll try to live this way and see if situations arise in which the board feels it has been undermined or misused."

If the two entities come into conflict, Mr. Finn said, the board will consider asking the Congress to amend the law to clarify its authority.

'Not Free-Standing'

The issue of how much authority the board holds could gain in importance if, as expected, naep is to play a role in measuring the pro8gress toward meeting any national goals created as a result of this week's education summit between President Bush and the nation's governors.

In contrast to naep's previous policymaking body, which was controlled by the firm that ran the assessment, the nagb has considerably more power over the content of the assessment and the way the results are reported.

Naep is a Congressionally mandated assessment of students' skills and knowledge in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. It is currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract with the Education Department.

The Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Act of 1988, which established the nagb, "is ambiguous" on the issue of the board's authority, Mr. Finn said.

"The board is an administrative creature of the department," he said. "It's not a free-standing agency."

Nevertheless, he said, the board has assumed certain powers, including the right to select a staff and to choose a chairman, which the department's lawyers claim are the Secretary's prerogative.

At its meeting this month, the board voted to recommend to Mr. Cavazos that he appoint Mr. Finn, a former assistant secretary of education, chairman for another year.

Funding Shortfall

In addition to establishing the governing board, the 1988 law authorized naep to conduct a pilot state-level assessment of 8th-grade mathematics in 1990 that will, for the first time, allow state-by-state comparisons of student-achievement data.

Members of the board warned at their meeting, however, that the fis4cal 1990 appropriations bills pending in the Congress fall short of the amount needed to conduct the new assessment.

The version approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee this month would provide $15 million for naep, $2 million more than the version passed by the House. Emerson J. Elliott, acting commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics, told the board it will cost $19.2 million to conduct the 1990 national and state-level assessments.

If the Congress fails to provide additional funds, Mr. Elliott said, the board may have to consider curtailing the state-level test, cutting back on the subjects to be tested, or limiting the analyses of the data.

None of the proposed options is acceptable, Mr. Finn responded.

"Any one of these would throw us in violation of the statute or the board's judgment of what is needed," he said. "We will urge the custodians of the purse strings to find us the money."

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