Commentary: Proposal for NAEP Is 'Recipe for Disaster'
Chester E. Finn Jr.--the former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Education Department who was appointed by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett on his last day in office to chair the National Assessment Governing Board--is calling for further expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to police American schooling ("The Need for Better Education Data," Commentary, Feb. 7, 1990).
The new role proposed by Mr. Finn for naep would be methodologically unsound and would neither foster reform nor increase accountability. But it would devour funding for more significant research and services, and it would be politically loaded.
First, no matter how worthwhile their intentions, it is inappropriate for federal officials--or their proxies--to determine the agenda for local instruction. An acceptance of the nation's diversity and the limits of centralized control has allowed competition and innovation for excellence in American education. In this context, naep has usefully spotlighted the need to strengthen our schools by providing a representative sample in an assessment that no one teaches to.
Since the Constitution and the law creating the U.S. Education Department establish that the federal government cannot control curricula, Mr. Finn proposes to drive a core curriculum indirectly through an extended naep. Concerned that such proposals might emerge, the House agreed to a limited, demonstration expansion of naep only on the condition that strong safeguards be put into pl 100-297 to protect the assessment's established function and prevent abuses. This balanced and incremental role is now being attacked.
Second, it is not easy to make valid comparisons of achievement across 50 states and 15,000 school districts--much less across nations--with different curricula and highly diverse student bodies. Scores may change for reasons having nothing to do with program quality.
Despite the fact that family income, for example, consistently emerges as one of the strongest predictors of achievement, naep does not include information on this factor. As Ramsay Selden of the Council of Chief State School Officers has pointed out, while absolute standards are needed, measures must also be placed in a real-world context if they are to improve policy and instruction. And as Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, notes, if we focus on a single standard, we risk skewing instruction away from the children well above or below it.
Without independent, multiple measures and information on process to guide debate and policymaking, the proposed "new new" naep becomes a platform for loudmouths rather than a useful tool for improvement.
Third, since no test can assess everything, the rankings of schools and states necessarily bounce around according to what is in the sample of knowledge and the instrument used to measure it. The Congressional Budget Office pointed out in a 1987 study that findings on educational achievement "make a strong case against creating a single national achievement test. ... Only by comparing several tests can the analyst distinguish results that are consistent enough to provide a firm basis for policy from those that are merely idiosyncrasies of individual tests."
As the "anomaly" in naep's 1986 reading results shows, even the Educational Testing Service can run into technical difficulties. And the findings of the West Virginia advocacy group Friends for Education--indicating that most children score "above average" on nationally normed tests--highlight the complex educational, political, and market forces at work in assessment.
Fourth, we need to use testing for reform. How would the altered naep proposed by Mr. Finn be used? The information traditionally released by naep has made sense at every level of education. In this form, naep has been a powerful force for reform. In contrast, the past decade's state-mandated tests have had little positive impact on education--and now some want to translate that failure to the national level.
Some propose turning naep into a high-stakes assessment that will directly affect funding, jobs, and curricula. It is safe to predict that scores will rise if the stakes become high enough: Under such conditions, testing begins to tell us more about curriculum "adjustment" and purchase of textbooks that look just like the test than it does about the ability of students to use what they have learned outside the classroom.
The alternative--basing policy on a national assessment without clear links to classroom practice--has other risks. A widely reported assessment of geography knowledge among students in Texas found that students "didn't know" what nation was south of the Rio Grande. This finding says something interesting--but does it concern students' ignorance or the unwarranted inference of the psychometricians and the press?
According to a report in Education Week, a small number of students in a rigorous California high school decided to "flunk" that state's assessment as a protest against their having to take too many standardized tests. The school's ranking plummeted, and red-faced administrators spent much time explaining.
Assessments of urban schools are unlikely to be free of such problems. This factor can lead to serious underestimation of what is being learned. In a nation where three out of four households have no children, this apparent documentation of failure is a political formula for undermining support for public education. Educational deficiencies must be pointed out--but in a way that assures they are real deficiencies, not statistical artifacts or ideological agendas in disguise.
Fifth, how much would a "new new" naep cost? The Alexander-James report that triggered the demonstration expansion of naep estimated that state-by-state comparisons could cost $26 million. As Mr. Finn more recently warned, an assessment providing state and local comparisons could easily cost $100 million. This figure presumably does not include more than a token move toward performance assessments: Reading essays or evaluating portfolios costs up to 300 times as much as a computer scan of multiple-choice questions. By contrast, the assessment of Chapter 1--the biggest federal program for precollegiate education--is budgeted at only $15 million.
And in addition to providing for an incremental, demonstration expansion of naep, pl 100-297 upgraded the responsibilities of the National Center for Education Statistics. But this year's entire budget for the wide range of activities at the nces is only $40.3 million--less than half what Mr. Finn proposes to spend on naep.
Costs for the current, limited expansion of naep are already far ahead of estimates. The Education Department recently "reprogrammed" $4 million to naep by deferring validity studies of the assessment, delaying a national assessment of adult illiteracy, and postponing work on the National Education Longitudinal Study. Naep could easily become the black hole of education funding; spending on this program must be balanced with increases for education4al services and for other research-and-development projects.
Sixth, what about the business of testing? Giving sole-source contracts for huge projects is always risky, and the education testing market is already dominated by very few players. The size and complexity of the ets contract for naep means that no one can effectively monitor it and assure accountability.
As the reading "anomaly" and recent cost overruns indicate, even if all parties are well intentioned, balance and accountability are still needed. Reinforcing industry concentration, the huge naep contract short-circuits the competition so vital to the scientific process in keeping researchers and policymakers honest, and so fundamental to improvements in assessment.
Seventh, any national assessment should supplement state, local, and private assessments--not displace or duplicate them. Mr. Finn, who so vigorously advocates competition in other areas of education policy, sees nothing but "a motley array of commercial tests and state assessment programs" when he surveys the field of assessment. In fact, it is the states and commercial testers that have spearheaded many innovations in the field. California, for instance, has a strong program of improved assessment under way, moving beyond the multiple-guess format for performance assessments.
There is no reason for naep to re-invent the wheel at great expense to taxpayers. Shared know-how makes federalism work for excellence. Despite the rhetoric from a few, we are not faced with a "top down" versus "bottom up" choice. In reality, the level and quality of data can be strengthened at all levels through effective cooperation. That is why pl 100-297 created a "cooperative education statistics" system under the nces Naep should build on this national resource.
Openness and wide, continuing input are crucial if naep is to serve accountability and excellence. Recent actions of the National Assessment Governing Board have created concern that, for political expediency, it has used technicalities to avoid listening to good advice. State directors of several of the large-scale assessments were distressed after the board's December meeting about its failure to consult widely; about what they perceived as the summary dismissal of the directors' association; and about consideration of governing-board papers calling for naep to monitor progress toward national goals without those papers' being circulated for comment to major educational organizations or the association of state assessment programs. This restriction of access and comment raises fears that the board and the ets may try to confront other players with accomplished facts in assessment design and implementation--and that expansion of naep may be a federal grab for power.
These concerns have been widely shared from the beginning. The original naep was carefully circumscribed to avoid such problems. The Alexander-James report--which provided the model for the "new" naep--included a warning from the National Academy of Education that the assessment4could not only begin to "exercise an influence on our schools that exceeds [its] scope and merit" but also evolve into a stifling national curriculum.
The study panel urged monitoring of naep's influence on schooling, secure insulation from political pressures, effective checks and balances, and wide public and professional participation at all levels. It also recommended that naep be clearly linked to real-world performance rather than rely on a test generated by bell-curve assumptions and report by a statistical "factor" where no one knows what the factor scores really mean. And the panel warned that naep's costs must not be allowed to undermine other vital data collection or pre-empt innovation and competition in testing.
The narrowly focused assessment hierarchy being proposed is a recipe for disaster. If the mutation of naep proposed by Mr. Finn ever comes to pass, who knows how many valuable programs will be killed and how many worthless projects will be funded.
The present, more limited assessment is useful precisely because it has done what no other source does: It provides a representative sample of students, and no one teaches to it. It makes federalism work efficiently by sharing expertise; it does not duplicate other efforts.
Vigorous action by the education community is critical in determining what role--if any--naep can play in building excellence in education for all Americans.
Representative Matthew G. Martinez, Democrat of California, is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Employment Opportunities.
Books About Black Children A 'Basic Need'
Volume IX, Issue 25, March 14, 1990. p 36
Copyright 1990, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.
Books About Black Children A 'Basic Need'
By Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard
When I was growing up in Boston a few decades ago--and reading voraciously everything available in our branch library--I knew that books were about other people. You could not become the characters you read about: queens and princesses, dwarfs and giants, children of long ago who lived in a rambling old house in Concord or in a tiny cottage in the Swiss Alps.
We could pretend. And we did. Everybody in books was white, and we identified with white people in books just as we did with white people in movies. None of it was real. And if nobody was black, well, that was all right, because that was the way stories were supposed to be. (There was one book, Tobe, by Stella Sharpe, that showed us a black child. This was a story in photographs of a little boy on a farm in North Carolina. But it was the only book I ever saw as a child that portrayed anybody black--and then, it was about a boy.)
What excitement I felt when, as a children's librarian years later, I read Marguerite de Angeli's Bright April. And when my own children were young, Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day was a wonderful event. I did not have enough black consciousness at the time to recognize the stereotyping later criticized in these books.
Children's books reflect the concerns of the society that produces them. A study of their history is a study of how adults have thought about children and childhood, and what adults have wanted children to know. Dorothy Broderick's Image of the Black in Children's Books--a work covering books published before 1967--shows how the dominant society's attitude toward blacks is revealed through the portrayal of black characters in subordinate roles. Books with black protagonists were virtually nonexistent during those years.
The turbulent, creative times of the mid-1960's revolutionized children's books, especially in the genre of realistic fiction. Topics that were formerly taboo in books for young people were discussed frankly for the first time.
And books about black children began to be published.
With the growing momentum of the civil-rights movement and the new availability of federal money for schools and libraries, there was a receptive audience for Nancy Larrick's revolutionary 1965 article, "The All White World of Children's Books." Publishers rushed to get into print books with black characters--or blackened characters. White authors leaped on the bandwagon. Rudine Sims of the University of Massachusetts documents these dramatic developments in her research on children's fiction published between 1965 and 1979.
Were the portrayals of black children, of black family life, of "black experience" culturally accurate? "Not to worry," seemed to be the response. At least there were some black faces in illustrations. Black children could see themselves in books. And white children might begin to realize, as Ms. Larrick had urged, that they were not the "kingfish." It was a new day for children's literature.
The first rash of such books, Ms. Sims suggests, might be called works of "social conscience." These were books by white writers aimed at white children, often involving school or neighborhood integration, such as Judy Blume's Iggie's House. Next, she says, came the "melting pot" books--most, again, by white writers--promoting American homogeneity and glossing over cultural differences. E.L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, & Me, Elizabeth would fit into this category.
Of most value for black children would be what Ms. Sims calls "culturally conscious" books: those written by black authors "to provide self-affirmation for Afro-American children." Publishers had bemoaned the scarcity of black authors. The Council on Interracial Books for Children, founded in 1966, offered a prize of $500 for a manuscript by a black writer; Kristin Hunter's The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou and Walter Dean Myers's Where Does the Day Go? were the winners. In 1975, the black author Virginia Hamilton was awarded the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of literature for children, M.C. Higgins, the Great. The second black winner of the Newbery Medal was Mildred D. Taylor, for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in 1977. In the years since, Ms. Hamilton, Ms. Taylor, and Mr. Myers have published especially distinguished work, winning further Newbery recognition and capturing several of the Coretta Scott King awards, established to recognize black writers and illustrators. And a number of other black authors have achieved recognition.
While books about black children written by black authors are essential for black readers, they are also vitally important for nonblack children. Such books must be in school libraries and public libraries, especially in areas where there are few or no black families.
While increasing numbers of books portraying black children are now being published, however, much more needs to be said in them. The story of the Afro-American in this country is partly a story of hardship and deprivation. But it is also a story of triumph, of black Americans' living good lives in spite of all the obstacles erected by the dominant society. It is a story of laughter and tears, of the give-and-take of families.
I cannot stress too strongly the importance of the family in the experience of black Americans. The picture of the black family as fragmented, blighted, or nonexistent is inaccurate. In fact, the black family is a strong support system, and young people should begin to know that in their impressionable years. The theory promulgated with all good intentions by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that the black family has always been in disarray, is simply not true. Charles Willie's work points out that, contrary to popular belief, the single-parent household is not the norm. Children's books can help to correct this unfortunate misconception.
In addition, more should be written about the history of black Americans. All children need to be able to discover in their books that the black experience involves more than slavery and reconstruction, segregation and civil rights, drugs and teenage pregnancy.
I am not saying that we have enough stories about these issues. The life of black America is multifaceted. But I am hoping for more books like Candy Dawson Boyd's Breadsticks and Blessing Places, Virginia Hamilton's Zeely and The Bells of Christmas, Eloise Greenfield's Grandpa's Face, Patricia McKissack's Mirandy and Brother Wind, my own The Train to Lulu's and Chita's Christmas Tree. Children's books about the history of blacks in the United States should include the stories of ordinary families who managed to live their lives as Americans in spite of an unjust system. It is important for all to be aware that, less than half a century after emancipation, there were black pharmacists, lawyers, doctors, and teachers.
There were small-businessmen, such as my great-uncle who had a grocery store offering fine produce and my great-grandfather who leased a dry dock in Baltimore. Sure, they had to sit in the balcony if they went to the theater, but I have my great-aunt's gold-and-mother-of-pearl opera glasses, made in Paris, with which she could enjoy performances from her peanut-gallery seat. And they saved their money and placed the highest value on education. Black children went to school and church, and celebrated holidays, and fussed with siblings, and went on trips to spend the summer with relatives.
The experiences of blacks are as broad as their roots are deep. As Rudine Sims has written, "The experience of growing up as the child of an Afro-American physician or lawyer or college professor is as valid--and as Afro-American--as that of growing up the child of a black cleaning woman or in a household dependent on welfare." All blacks are touched by a collective experience, she suggests, and they are "simultaneously a part of the more general culture and a distinct cultural group." A rich ore of this experience has yet to be mined--one that, portrayed through fiction and biography, can help both black and nonblack children better understand the role of black Americans in this country.
At present, the outlook seems hopeful. After the flurry of concern and hasty publishing of books with black characters two decades ago, there was a troubling slowdown, possibly due to cutbacks in federal funds for libraries. For whatever reasons, there were fewer books in print about black children in 1984 than in 1979. At the turn of the decade, however, a new surge of interest has developed. Perhaps the fact that children's books are leading the market makes editors more willing to risk "black" books. But surely the industry is tuned in to the economic power of a growing black middle class that is rightfully insisting on more books for its children. Considerations of conscience aside, publishing such books just might be good business.
"Black experience" books are appearing on almost all the publishers' lists for spring and fall. Distinguished black writers are creating more and more highly acclaimed works. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich has recently announced an unprecedented nine-book contract with Virginia Hamilton. Artists such as Jerry Pinkney and Floyd Cooper cannot keep up with the demand for their talents. And new black authors and illustrators have surfaced.
We must hope that this trend can weather the vicissitudes of the publishing business. As our society realizes that books about black children are a basic need, more of them will be published and more will stay in print.
It is truly a time of promise.
Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, who teaches children's literature at West Virginia University, is the author of The Train to Lulu's and Chita's Christmas Tree.
- Elementary Principal Madarin Dual Language Program
- Bellevue School District, Bellevue, WA
- The Berkeley Institute, HAMILTON, Bermuda
- Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning
- Roanoke City Public Schools, Roanoke, VA
- Round Rock ISD, Round Rock, TX
- Christ the King Preparatory School, NJ