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Wielding New NAEP Data,Shanker Assails Choice

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Washington--Using data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress as ammunition, the president of the American Federation of Teachers has launched a sharp attack on the Bush Administration's proposal to extend educational choice to private schools--and on the belief that their students outperform those in public schools.

At a Congressional hearing, a news conference, and an aft meeting here this month, Albert Shanker noted that the 1990 naep mathematics assessment found that 54 percent of parochial-school 12th graders and 51 percent of those in other private schools could answer questions on topics typically taught in the 7th grade, compared with 45 percent of public-school 12th graders. He argued that the gap was insignificant.

Most of the remaining students from all school categories scored at a lower level.

Mr. Shanker noted, too, that 5 percent of public-school 12th graders achieved the highest level of proficiency, compared with 4 percent for private-school students.

Private-school 4th and 8th graders posted a greater advantage, but Mr. Shanker argued that the end result is the important one.

"The assumption has always been that private and parochial schools are doing much more in terms of achievement," Mr. Shanker said. "The truth is, they are producing the same results."

"In fact," he said, given that their students are more likely to come from "advantaged" backgrounds, "private and parochial schools are doing a worse job."

The a.f.t. offered an additional analysis of the naep data that showed that the public-private achievement gap shrinks even further when students of similar backgrounds are compared.

"The sad fact is that neither system is doing well," Mr. Shanker said. "The undeniable fact is that if we are serious about our students' meeting world-class standards, ... private-school choice is not the answer."

Mr. Shanker said he agreed with most observers that the Congress was unlikely to enact the Administration plan, but added that "I'm afraid states and school districts will."

Analysis Questioned

The National Catholic Educational Association and the National Association of Independent Schools questioned both the additional analysis prepared for the a.f.t. and the adequacy of naep's private-school sample.

"Over the next few months, we will be seeing more sophisticated analyses produced, and I think those will confirm what those in the private-school world have always asserted, which is that the education in private schools is su4perior," said John W. Sanders, vice president of the n.a.i.s.

The n.a.i.s. also stated that unpublished data from the National Education Longitudinal Study show that students in independent private schools outperform both public- and Catholic-school pupils.

Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the n.c.e.a., said her organization has done its own analysis of naep findings for a decade and "the results have always shown a significant and consistent difference between public and Catholic schools in reading, math, and science." She also argued that the 1990 differences deemed minimal by Mr. Shanker were not insignificant at all.

Still, Sister McNamee said, "Nobody in the nation can be satisfied with these results. That's why we have a reform movement under way to improve both public and private schools."

She argued that universal parental choice would force both sectors to shape up, and that even a lesser achievement gap would not be a valid argument against choice.

Naep's deputy director, Ina V.S. Mullis, said, "A general impression, as somebody who sends her daughter to a private school, is that there is a distinct advantage at the lower grades, but it does seem to be less at the high-school level."

Ms. Mullis said separate data on private-school achievement has been collected for many years, but was not highlighted in previous reports because 1990 was the first year that enough such students were sampled to support comparative conclusions.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., then an assistant education secretary and now a member of naep's governing board, warned private-school educators in 1988 that they could be vulnerable to the kind of attack Mr. Shanker is making. (See Education Week, March 9, 1988.)

At the annual meeting of the n.a.i.s., Mr. Finn said 1986 naep data showed private-school students scoring only slightly higher on reading, history, and literature.

"There's a differential, but it's a very small differential, in an area where the public-school performance is scandalously low," Mr. Finn said at the time.

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