Published Online: August 4, 1993

Goals Panel Pushes NAEP-Like Test for College Graduates

WASHINGTON--The National Education Goals Panel last week recommended the development of a national assessment to test the skills of college graduates.

The examination--which would resemble the National Assessment of Educational Progress for precollegiate students--was one of two measures adopted by the panel to help gauge progress in meeting the fifth of the national education goals adopted in 1990. That goal calls for every adult American to be literate and to "possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy.''

At its July 27 meeting, the panel also called on states and the federal government to develop uniform reporting systems for student-graduation rates from postsecondary programs, particularly for minority students.

"We want to do what we can to improve our graduation rates among minorities,'' said Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who headed a task force that examined the issue.

Taken together, he said, both measures "would allow states as a whole to tell how they are doing, and the nation as a whole to tell how it is doing.''

Not Without Controversy

Like NAEP, which is given periodically in key academic areas to thousands of students in grades 4, 8, and 12, the new higher-education assessment would be voluntary and based on national samples of college graduates. It would not provide scores for individual students or institutions.

The exam would assess graduates'critical-thinking, communications, and problem-solving skills, and it would include assessments of occupation-specific skills for students in such programs.

Both proposals were controversial among higher-education officials, who testified at hearings the task force held on the topic last spring.

Some of them said the proposed system would be unfair to such institutions as community colleges or those with large populations of "at risk'' students, who come in need of more remedial help. Questions were also raised about the lack of incentives for private colleges to participate in a national exam.

To some degree, however, the federal government has already begun to take steps toward gauging the quality of postsecondary instruction nationwide.

National task forces, for example, are developing voluntary skills standards for 13 occupational areas. Some postsecondary graduation data are also collected under the Student Right to Know Act, a federal law passed in 1991.

And the Education Department has provided funding for a long-term effort to begin developing a national assessment for college graduates.

Keeping NAEP

On another matter, the goals panel also voted to continue using NAEP data on student achievement in its annual reports.

The federal government's method for reporting NAEP results--which calls for reporting students' scores at three levels--"basic,'' "advanced,'' and "proficient''--has been criticized for yielding misleading interpretations of what students can do. (See Education Week, July 14,1993.)

And some technical experts consulted by the panel had recommended dropping the achievement-level data from the report.

The "data are an excellent measure of students' overall performance on an ambitious test of skills,'' said Martin Orland, the panel's acting executive director. "That's different from content mastery or non-mastery.''

To make the distinction clear, the panel members unanimously approved changes in the way the data are presented in the goals report.

The new report would include, for example, charts showing the percentage of "easy,'' "moderately easy,'' "difficult,'' and "very difficult'' questions answered by students scoring at particular levels.

Also, the panel said, the report should make clear that, "although less than ideal, these are the best available data and that there are continuing efforts to improve them.''

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