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NAEP Board Is Seeking A Consensus on Reading

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Washington--Entering one of the most emotional and divisive debates in education, the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress has begun the thorny task of creating objectives for its 1992 4th-grade reading test.

Beginning this week, the board will hold a series of public hearings nationwide aimed at developing a consensus on the skills and knowledge to be tested on the assessment. During the summer, the board sent out 1,600 letters inviting both the public and reading specialists to the hearings.

The outcome of the six-month process could exert a strong influence on state curricula, because the 1992 assessment will be the first to include state-by-state comparisons of reading-achievement scores.

In addition, observers say, the assessment would likely be used to help measure progress toward any national goals in student achievement that emerge from this week's summit between President Bush and the nation's governors.

But many board members and reading experts contend that the board faces an uphill task in trying to reach an agreement on the highly contentious issue of how to measure reading performance in the primary grades. The board must accommodate views that range from a heavy emphasis on phonics, or letter-to-sound identification, to a "whole language" approach that stresses reading in context.

"Getting an agreement will take quite a lot of palaver," said the panel's chairman, Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. "Primary-grade reading is probably the stage of reading that is most controversial in America."

States Want 'a Role'

The process for developing a common view on the goals and content of the reading assessment is one of the most elaborate undertaken by naep's policymaking body, according to State Representative Wilhelmina F. Delco of Texas, chairman of the governing board's reading committee.

"We have tried to bend over backwards to increase awareness of what we are doing and raise the level of participation," she said.

In the past, when naep conducted a national assessment only, Mr. Finn added, fewer people participated in the process.

"When you administer a test on which states are going to be compared," he said, "it is legitimate for states to want to know what's in it, and to have a role in it, to ensure that the test is a tolerable facsimile of what they teach."

The 1990 8th-grade mathematics assessment will also be conducted at the state level. But for that test, Mr. Finn said, naep relied on the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which had already laid the groundwork for consensus-building in that field.

By contrast, no comparable effort has been undertaken by a reading group, Mr. Finn noted.

In addition to plowing new ground, the board must also contend with sharp political divisions over methods of teaching reading. Both reading specialists and lay people have strongly held beliefs on the issue, said P. David Pearson, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois.

Religion, Not Science

"Reading is more a religion than a science," he told the board at its quarterly meeting here this month.

Mr. Pearson and Connie Juel, professor of reading at the University of Texas, outlined for the board their differing views of reading and the implications those views hold for the assessment.

According to Ms. Juel, naep assessments tend to place too great an emphasis on reading-comprehension skills, and not enough on the more basic skills of word recognition and oral-language comprehension, or understanding what words mean.

As a result, she said, analyses of the assessments may mask problems in the basic skills.

"I'm concerned about a great number of kids who do poorly on the test not because they can't reason, but because they can't recognize words," Ms. Juel said. "We've got to make sure kids can do that."

"Before you assess how fast you can run," she added, "first assess how well you stand on your own two feet."

But Mr. Pearson warned that such an assessment might prompt schools to focus on the basic skills, when in fact many experts believe students can learn those skills implicitly while they learn comprehension.

Rather than test discrete skills, he said, the assessment should "minimize the gap between what readers do when they read and what they do on the test."

Faced with such disparate views, Mr. Finn said the board might conclude that it is unable to devise a single reading assessment.

"It's possible we'll end up with a multiple-format assessment," he said, noting that naep currently assesses writing by using several formats. "I hope not."

The dates and locations for the board's public hearings on the 1992 assessment are as follows: Sept. 27, Dallas (Richland College, Performance Hall); Oct. 11, Trenton, N.J. (Trenton Board of Education); Oct. 26, Los Angeles (Los Angeles County Board Room, Downey); and Nov. 3, Atlanta (Georgia Tech, Southern Regional Education Board Headquarters).

More information is available from the National Assessment Governing Board, Mary E. Switzer Building, Suite 4060, 330 C Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202-7583; telephone: (202) 732-7885.

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