In Protest, Pittsburgh Pulls Out of State-Level NAEP
Washington--In a dramatic gesture to protest proposed expansions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the testing director of the Pittsburgh school system has abruptly pulled that district out of participation in naep's first state-level assessment.
The pilot state-level test in 8th-grade mathematics, which got under way last month, is expected to generate the first state-by-state comparisons of student-achievement data. Pennsylvania is among the 37 states that have agreed to participate in the pilot.
But in a memorandum to the National Association of Test Directors, Paul G. LeMahieu, the immediate past president of the group, wrote that he pulled Pittsburgh out of the pilot to signal his opposition to resolutions on expanding naep adopted by the assessment's governing board in December.
Among other recommendations, the board agreed to urge the Congress to lift the ban on the use of naep tests at the school and district levels and to test students more often in key subject areas.
"I don't want to cause the collapse of the trial state-level assessment," Mr. LeMahieu said in an interview. "I want to underscore, in a dramatic way, that the board should listen to people who know how to do testing well."
"I would much prefer to discuss the merits of the proposals," he added. "I think they're seriously flawed."
"But the nagb action precluded the possibility of discussion," the testing director said.
Chester E. Finn Jr., the governing board's chairman, called Mr. LeMa4hieu's action "odd, thoughtless, and petulant," and warned that it would harm people who are not the targets of his protest.
"If his pulling out spoils Pennsylvania's sample, the state of Pennsylvania would be the loser," Mr. Finn said. "It may be that the price for his action would be paid by people in Pennsylvania who would like to know how the state is doing in 8th-grade mathematics."
Mr. Finn also denied that the governing board's actions foreclosed debate over the proposed expansion of naep, since the Congress must act on the proposals.
"A lot of people don't agree with some or all of our recommendations," he said. "But it was a responsible and proper action to make recommendations."
Demands for Data
The resolutions at issue were based on a governing-board staff paper, entitled "The Future of naep as the Nation's Report Card," that outlined ways the assessment could improve its data-gathering capabilities.
A 20-year-old Congressionally mandated project, naep tests a national sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 every two years in reading, writing, mathematics, science, and other subjects.
The 1988 law that reauthorized the assessment also authorized a pilot state-level test. In addition to the 1990 8th-grade mathematics test, the law authorized a state-level test in 4th-grade reading and in 4th- and 8th-grade math in 1992.
But the efforts by President Bush and the nation's governors to set national goals for student performance, Mr. Finn noted, have led some critics--notably Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico--to question whether naep's current structure is adequate to meet the demands for information to monitor progress toward those goals.
To enhance the assessment, the board in December adopted resolutions recommending that:
Naep test at least three subjects a year, rather than every other year.
Naep move "as quickly as possible to full state participation in all subjects and all three grade levels."
The Congress remove the prohibition against using naep items and test data at the district and building levels.
Naep exams be revised to include "the full range of knowledge and skills, from basic skills to advanced subject-matter knowledge and analytical, integrative skills."
In addition, the board also tentatively adopted a plan to set national standards for student performance in the subjects it tests. That proposal, which could go into effect this year, was expected to be formally adopted by the board late last week.
To Mr. Finn, the proposals for exel15lpanding naep represent the governing board's advice to the Congress, which must authorize any expansion and provide the funds necessary to carry it out.
On such matters, "the board is part of the public, not a decisionmaker," he said. "We're a source of advice. Everyone else is, too."
But Ramsey W. Selden, director of the state education-assessment center of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the board's action took testing officials by surprise.
'What Types of Testing?'
"Our perception was that it was the intention of the governing board in December to take the suggestions under advisement," he said. "Now they are in the position, having accepted these as changes, of working to implement them."
In fact, Mr. Selden said, "these are substantial changes to make, both politically and programmatically."
The board's resolutions also violated "the intent and the spirit" of the law that authorized the state-by-state assessment, Mr. LeMahieu charged. That law, he said, authorized only a pilot state-level test in 1990 and 1992, and required the Education Department to commission an independent evaluation of the pilot.
"The law said to try the thing for five years and carefully assess how we've done," he said.
Mr. LeMahieu also called the proposed expansion "wrongheaded," and warned that it would add additional testing burdens without providing better information on student achievement.
Such tests could jeopardize districts' efforts to develop new forms of assessment that more accurately measure student achievement and help improve instruction, he added.
"There is only a certain amount of [instructional] time I in good conscience can give over to testing," the Pittsburgh director said. "The question becomes, what types of testing, whose, and for what purpose?"
To signal his objections to the proposals and to the way in which they were adopted, Mr. LeMahieu decided to withdraw from the state-level assessment.
"It is with disappointment I take an action like this," he said. "Theirs was a political move. That's why I responded politically."
His action may not skew Pennsylvania's results, according to officials from Westat Inc., a firm that does statistical work for naep. Some 90 percent of schools selected for the state's sample are participating in the assessment, including an adequate sample of urban schools from Philadelphia, the officials noted.
Moreover, Mr. LeMahieu said, "I can't swear that other states aren't skewed or biased. That's a matter for the evaluation we are all anticipating."
Mr. LeMahieu said other test directors were willing to join in his protest, but he counseled against such a move. A widespread boycott of the state-level assessment, he reasoned, could encourage the Congress to pass legislation forcing local districts to participate.
Instead, he urged the test directors to support his efforts to block the proposed expansion. Noting the national interest in holding schools accountable for student performance, he said the federal government is in a strong position to improve naep, rather than rush to make an inadequate test larger.
"This is a golden moment," he said. "For God's sake, let's do it well."