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Educators Worry NAEP Levels May Hurt Instruction

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WASHINGTON--The National Assessment Governing Board's proposal to set standards for mathematics achievement may damage schools' efforts to improve instruction in the subject, educators told members of the board here last week.

"The first maxim of teaching is, 'Do no harm,"' said Frank Betts, director of the curriculum and technology resource center for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "I believe there is a very real potential for harm in reporting three levels of achievement."

Mr. Betts noted that, under the board's plan, the panel will report the proportion of students who per at the "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" levels of achievement on the 1990 math assessment.

Such reports--which will also include the results of the first-ever state-level assessment--could lead to invidious comparisons between groups of students based on very small differences in performance, he said.

The result, he predicted, would be "bombast" from national officials that would demoralize teachers and do little to spur improvements.

In addition, said Herbert Rosenthal, former deputy director of the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, the standards are unlikely to lead schools to improve math instruction to raise performance. Many of the test questions, he contended, are based on an increasingly outmoded view of what math education should be.

"If I were reading [the results] and deciding what I should do in my school," Mr. Rosenthal said, "I would [continue to] do what has been done for I don't know how long. Nothing would change about classroom practices."

Rather than report three levels of achievement, Mr. Betts suggested, the board should report only those performing at the basic level until the curriculum and testing are "in sync."

Board members responded that the standards are unlikely to affect schools' curricula, since the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests a sample of students, not all students.

In addition, noted Commissioner of Education William T. Randall of Colorado, NAEP must test students' basic skills, as well as those math educators want to emphasize, in order to determine how many students possess such abilities.

"The fundamental issue," he said, "is that thousands, millions are not functioning at the level we want them to be."

The proposed achievement levels, which were unveiled last month, would enable NAEP for the first time to compare student performance against agreed-upon standards of what students in grades 4, 8, and 12 should know and be able to do. The plan is aimed at making NAEP data more useful to the public and policymakers, according to Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board and vice chairman of the NAGB

"The board is trying to say, 'What is good enough?"' Mr. Musick said. "Very few testing programs have sought to answer that question."

Although the board had originally planned to make a final decision last week on whether to include the standards in its report on the 1990 math assessment, it agreed earlier last month to postpone the report for three months to give members additional time to consider the proposal. The panel also scheduled a second public hearing, which will be held this month or next. (See Education Week, Nov. 28, 1990.)

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