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Despite Doubts, NAEP Panel Meets To Set First National Standards for Achievement

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By Robert Rothman

ESSEX JUNCTION, VT--After expressing misgivings about the process, a group of educators, business leaders, and public officials met here last month to set what could become the first national standards for student achievement.

Taking what some officials called a historic step, the 71 judges analyzed each of the questions on the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress test in mathematics, and made judgments about whether students at "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" levels of achievement should be able to answer them correctly.

Their decisions will be compiled into a report, expected to be released this month, that will outline how students at each of the three levels of performance in grades 4, 8, and 12 should perform on the assessment.

If their proposals are adopted by the National Assessment Governing Board, next spring that panel will report the results of the math assessment--the first to include state-by-state data--by comparing how students actually measured up to the standards. In the past, NAEP has simply described how students performed on the assessments.

Some participants in the process, however, questioned whether the exercise would produce improvements in education. Noting that the procedure they used is normally employed by small groups setting a single standard, they said it remained to be seen whether a group as diverse as theirs could produce valid standards for three levels of achievement in three grades.

In addition, some panelists also argued that the standards might do little to spur policymakers to reform schools, and might in fact impede efforts to upgrade curricula.

"If the test items were really reflecting the kind of curriculum we have in mind, the process would probably be useful," said Thomas A. Romberg, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "The difficulty is, because these are short-answer questions that students are expected to answer in less than a minute, on average, it may just add to the problem of getting kids to work on more complex tasks."

To encourage students to meet the standards, he added, "teachers may spend more time on drill and practice on trivial stuff."

Michael Glode, a member of the NAEP governing board who attended the meeting here, said the board would consider the panelists' views in deciding whether to adopt the standards, as well as those from a team of researchers hired to evaluate the project. The board has also tentatively scheduled a public hearing in Washington on the issue Oct. 30, he said.

"We're not going to stuff this down the American people or the Congress," Mr. Glode said, adding: "I think it's going to work."

Created in 1969, NAEP is a Congressionally mandated project that tests a national sample of students in reading, writing, mathematics, science, and other subjects. It is currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract toU.S. Education Department.

This year, NAEP for the first time conducted a state-level assessment in 8th-grade math in 37 states and the District of Columbia. These results, expected to be released next June, will provide the first state-by-state comparisons of student achievement.

The plan to set achievement levels, adopted by the National Assessoverning Board in May, was aimed at providing a "new way of looking" at the test results, according to Roy E. Truby, the board's executive director. (See Education Week, May 23, 1990.)

"NAEP has described what American children know and don't know," he said. "It has never said whether they know enough."

In addition, he said, the standards could also serve as a framework that would enable President Bush and the nation's governors to refine their goals for improving student performance.

"The White House and governors could say, 'By the year 2000, X percent of students should be at the proficient, or advanced level,"' Mr. Truby said.

To set the achievement levels, the governing board selected a group that would represent diverse viewpoints on what students should know and be able to do in mathematics, according to Mr. Truby.

"If the board would do it, with its 23 members in an ivory tower, that would not be acceptable," he said. "At the same time, we can't get 1,000 people together."

The group that met here included classroom teachers, many of whom were Presidential scholars, district- and state-level math and testing specialists, and mathematicians and math educators. In addition, the panluded representatives from major corporations, a U.S. Army recruiter, state and local school-board members, an aide to Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, and a White House staff member.

The panelists were assigned to examine test questions for a particular grade level, 4, 8, or 12, and asked to define "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" levels of performance. They then were asked to determine the probability that students at each achievement level should be able to answer the questions correctly.

In making such judgments, Ronald K. Hambleton, a consultant on the project, told panel members to consider whether the skill measured by the test question was important, as well as the degree of difficulty of the question.

The procedure is similar to one states use in setting standards for their tests, noted Robert E. Gabrys, chief of program assessment, evaluation, and instructional support for the Maryland Department of Education. But, he said, "it's a lot easier to do for a state than for the nation."

"In a state, you know everybody," Mr. Gabrys said. "The people who made up the [test] objectives and items are involved in standard-setting. If you pull 50 states together, that makes it hard to set a single standard."

Mr. Hambleton, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, added that, unlike other standard-setting efforts, the NAEP panelists were asked to set standards for three levels of performance, rather than a single standard separating passing from failing.

"This process is unique," he acknowledged. "But it's an easy extension. I don't think it in itself is a real hassle."

But Mr. Romberg of the University of Wisconsin said it was difficult to draw a distinction between proficient and advanced performance. Out of 191 8th-grade items he analyzed, he concluded that fewer than a dozen were so challenging that only advanced students could be expected to answer them.

After making judgments about the test questions, the panelists also had the opportunity to see how students actually performed on the assessment, which was administered earlier this year. The judges could then adjust their ratings if they considered their standards unrealistic.

Mr. Truby said the governing board had a "knock-down, drag-out debate" over whether to allow the panelists to see the results; in the end, he said, they agreed to make them available.

"It was hard to make a case for ignorance," he said.

Ann P. Kahn, former president of the National PTA, said she lowered some standards after seeing that students performed poorly on questions she thought those at the basic level should know.

"I want kids to stretch," she said, "but I was putting them on a rack."

But Yolanda Rodriguez, a teacher at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Cambridge, Mass., said she occasionally set higher standards after seeing that students were unable to answer questions she thought they ought to do well on.

"It's unconscionable that kids are doing that poorly," she said. "The system has failed. Something has to propel the curriculum."

Judith D. Thayer, chairman of the New Hampshire Board of Education, agreed that the results of the standards-setting exercise were likely to show large gaps between student performance and expectations for what they should know and be able to do. She predicted that the publication of the results next spring would spur the public to support efforts to improve schools.

"Once the American public is given information about what students do know," she said, "more and more parents and citizens will be involved in improving education."

But Richard M. Jaeger, one of the researchers commissioned to evaluate the project, was less optimistic. The results will most likely be used as "political fodder for those who would bash schools," he said.

"Educators will resist paying attention to them," said Mr. Jaeger, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "If they do pay attention to them, they will find a million reasons why they don't apply to them."

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