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Conferees Discuss Merits, Shortfalls in Indicators Report

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By Robert Rothman

WASHINGTON--The recently released report by a Congressionally mandated study panel on education indicators could lead to substantial improvements in information about education, participants at a conference here late last month agreed.

But even if the report's recommendations are implemented, participants said, the data may not be sufficient to help policy-makers develop sound policies.

And, they noted, the recommendations could take years to implement, if they can be implemented at all.

"You've given [the National Center for Education Statistics] a job I think is impossible to carry out," said Janet L. Norwood, the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Department of Labor. "At least it's impossible in the short run. I hope in the very long run one could move in that direction." Ms. Norwood noted that the cen- ter must first obtain a consensus on precisely what information it intends to collect, and then must set about the arduous--and costly-task of gathering it.

She noted that it took her agency 10 years to develop a different method of computing housing costs for the Consumer Price Index, the government's chief measure of inflation.

Anthony S. Bryk, a professor of education at the University of Chicago and a member of the study panel, responded that the group's intention was to present a long-term agenda for the N.C.E.S., not to call for i an immediate overhaul of its data-gathering system.

"This is surely not a plan, but it is a direction," he said. "It says, 'Here's how the indicator system ought to move in the years ahead.'"

'Enduring Issues'

Released in September, the report by the study panel, entitled "Education Counts," called for the Education Department to expand and revamp its statistics agency to create an information system that would focus on six "enduring issues" in education. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)

These issues include learner outcomes, the quality of educational institutions, children's readiness for school, societal support for learning, education and economic productivity, and equity.

John F. Jennings, the general counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee, praised the study panel for rejecting the idea--implicit in its charge from the Congress coming up with a simple "Dow Jones index" of the state of education.

"You can't reduce reality to one or two numbers," Mr. Jennings said. "If you put all your chips on one or two tests, you're asking for a peck of trouble."

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said the report is consistent with the goals of state- level policy-makers, who are looking for new data on student per- formance, children's services, and other topics that are not currently collected by the federal government.

But Lorraine M. McDonnell, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the system the report recommends would be more useful to practitioners than to policy-makers, who need system-wide information. She noted that the study panel was composed primarily of educators and statisticians.

"The report would have looked quite different ira number of elected officials were on the panel," Ms. McDonnell said.

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