Bush's Early Release of NAEP Data Could Harm Credibility, Board Warns
WASHINGTON--By prematurely releasing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, President Bush could have threatened the credibility of the testing program, the chairman of NAEP's governing board warned last week.
In a letter to Emerson J. Elliott, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP, Richard A. Boyd noted that the President had violated the governing board's policy last month by releasing data from a NAEP reading report a day before a scheduled press conference. (See Education Week, June 3, 1992.)
The policy, Mr. Boyd explained, stresses that the release of testing data should be "apolitical.''
Otherwise, he said in an interview, NAEP could lose its credibility.
"I don't know if it did [damage credibility] this time,'' said Mr. Boyd, the executive director of the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation. "But it certainly could have that result if it were done by somebody else, or if it were done often.''
"To the extent political figures release the data,'' he added, "we bear the danger the data could be politicized. That's in nobody's best interest.''
Mr. Elliott responded, however, that Mr. Bush had done no harm. The President simply reported the facts from a report that had already been completed, Mr. Elliott pointed out.
"You have to ask, Is there any evidence the message was distorted? I don't see that there was,'' Mr. Elliott said. "Was the agency asked to do anything inappropriate? It was not.''
Governing Board's Policy
The issue over the release of NAEP data arose last month when, at an appearance at a Christian private school in suburban Atlanta, and again at an Atlanta fund-raising dinner, President Bush revealed statistics from the forthcoming NAEP report.
The report was "a little worrisome for the country,'' he said at the Republican dinner, according to The Associated Press.
"The kids are watching over three hours of television a day and reading less than five pages a day. That is wrong,'' the President said. "You can't legislate it, but we've got to keep talking out and saying the way to ... help these kids is to have strong family values.''
But those remarks violated the National Assessment Governing Board's policy on reporting NAEP data, according to board officials.
That policy, adopted in November 1990, was aimed at putting îáåð data on a par with other federal statistical information, such as Census Bureau reports and economic data, the officials said.
The policy states: "Public reporting and release procedures for îáåð shall be apolitical, similar to those of other Congressionally mandated data-gathering programs. By insulating NAEP from partisan political considerations, the release procedures should serve to uphold the credibility of îáåð data and to encourage the continued voluntary participation of schools, school districts, and states in NAEP surveys.''
Roy E. Truby, the board's executive director, emphasized that the policy refers only to the initial release of the data.
"It does not mean that the data won't be interpreted in many, many different ways,'' Mr. Truby observed. "That's appropriate.''
'To the Good of the Country'
The past head of another key federal statistical agency agreed that the President should not be the one to release such data.
"It's always better that the data get out as objectively as possible,'' said Janet L. Norwood, the former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles unemployment and inflation statistics.
Ms. Norwood noted, however, that the economic data, but not education statistics, are covered by an Office of Management and Budget directive. Developed during the Ford Administration, the directive ensures that the statistical agency releases the information.
Education data have not yet attained the status of economic statistics, said John F. Jennings, an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee.
"The long-term objective is to make the center for education statistics as respected as the B.L.S., so they will release objective data,'' Mr. Jennings said. "I understand that, and I agree with it. But I don't think the N.C.E.S. is quite there yet.''
Mr. Jennings, a Democrat, added that he thinks the President has the right to release any government information he chooses.
"The President isn't just a Republican,'' he said. "He's the head of the government. If he wants to release a report, it's probably to the good of the country.''
"I doubt if the report would have gotten the attention it did if he hadn't released it,'' the committee aide added.