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E.D., NAEP Board Spar Over Plan To Limit Tests

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Washington

The board charged with setting policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress is at odds with the Education Department's top statisticians over plans to limit the state-level testing program to just one subject and one grade level next year.

Since 1990, the NAEP program, known as "the nation's report card,'' has been providing states with data on how their students fared on its assessments. In 1992, 41 states participated in the program, and students were given tests in 4th-grade reading and in 4th- and 8th-grade mathematics.

Next year, the department is authorized to conduct the assessments in two subjects and in three grades.

But the budget approved by Congress this fall provided less than half of the $65 million the Education Department requested to conduct those assessments. The $29.3 million it received is about the same as last year's funding level for the program.

Faced with that financial constraint, the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP and other statistical programs administered by the department, said it would cut the program back to a single state-level assessment in 4th-grade reading.

But in a letter last month to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, the National Assessment Governing Board warned that the planned cutback "would be a setback not only for NAEP itself but also for officials and the public in many states that have begun to rely on NAEP data as an independent, valid, and comparable measure of education results.''

"The state-level information generates a lot more attention and discussion than the national data,'' Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the governing board, said in an interview. "It would be like going from color TV back to black-and-white TV.''

Who Decides?

The 24-member board was set up by Congress in 1988 to guide NAEP in selecting the subjects to be tested, in identifying the learning objectives and achievement goals for the tests, and in insuring that the test items are free from any kind of bias. The Education Department and the N.C.E.S., however, decide how to spend the funds allocated for the testing program.

Department officials said last week that they are reviewing their budget in response to the governing board's request.

"However, the Secretary made clear that we do not want to sacrifice our commitment to analysis and evaluation simply for the sake of expanding the assessment,'' said Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

She said that some of the NAEP funds will pay for studies to evaluate technical aspects of the state-level assessment, which is still officially being conducted on a trial basis.

"We may be expanding based on flawed technical principles,'' she said. "You want to do as much as you can, but you want to do it well.''

The governing board, however, said that funds for some of those efforts might be better spent to conduct state-level reading assessments in at least two grades, the 4th and the 12th grades. Moreover, the board said, the N.C.E.S. was able to conduct state-level assessments in two grades in one subject and in one grade in another with the same amount of funding in 1992.

"We're saying, 'Look at the way we're spending other money. Are [the tests] less of a priority?''' Mr. Musick said. "Is there somewhere else in the department where funds can be found?''

Also, he said, "we believe some states might be willing to pay for this information, and states have not been polled and given the option of stepping forward.''

Still, Mr. Musick conceded that there is little time left to make changes in the state-level assessment, which will be held in February. National exams are still planned, however, in reading, geography and U.S. history.

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