Clinton Plan Would Allow School, District NAEP Results
Schools and districts would be permitted for the first time in years to find out how their students fared on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests under a Clinton Administration proposal for reauthorizing the federal testing program.
The NAEP program, known as the "nation's report card,'' has for most of its 24-year existence focused on providing a national snapshot of student achievement. The program underwent a controversial expansion in 1988, and began on a trial basis allowing participating states to see how their students rated against those in other states.
Current law, however, specifically prohibits reporting comparative data for entities below the state level.
The Administration's legislative proposal, which was introduced in the House last week, would allow states and local educational agencies to obtain data to compare their own schools or districts. But the federal government would still be prohibited from including that kind of information in its official test reports.
The proposal also calls for making the trial state comparisons a permanent part of the testing program.
Both proposed changes are expected to face an uphill battle in Congress, where calls to expand NAEP have been greeted with some coolness in recent years.
"The big question is, with all these changes, are you changing NAEP from the trend indicator it was meant to be used for?'' said Lisa Ross, an aide to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee. "There's going to be debate.''
Costly Common Sense
The Administration's desire to expand the NAEP program stems in part from the success of the trial state comparisons. Although the trial was controversial when first proposed, 41 states participated last year, when students were tested in 4th-grade reading and in 4th- and 8th-grade mathematics.
Moreover, a handful of states, such as Kentucky and North Carolina, have begun to explore ways to link their own assessment systems to NAEP tests.
"The trial state assessment was a pilot, and we learned that it did work,'' said Emerson J. Elliott, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. "Since we've met the test, we now know we can go on.''
States appear to want the comparative data, but some members of Congress are unsure that the state-level assessments are worth the cost. Testing in two subjects, at two grade levels, costs $30 million to $40 million, according to Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.
State-level comparisons are also unpopular with lawmakers from states that fare poorly on the tests.
"Why would you want to compare yourself with a state that has really different curricula?'' said Ms. Ross, Senator Kassebaum's aide. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that kids in Mississippi are not going to do as well as kids in Connecticut.''
Such questions kept Congress from permanently authorizing the state-level assessments in 1992, the last time the matter came up, and skeptical lawmakers are expected to balk at the prospect of making the pilot program permanent.
Requests From Local Level
The bigger battle this time around, however, may be the proposal to allow reporting of NAEP results below the state level, said John F. Jennings, the general counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee.
Administration officials said the proposal was prompted by requests from states and large school districts that want to see how their own students measure up.
"People at the local level are saying, 'We'd like to use that information. It's a taxpayer-funded program and we should be able to,''' Mr. Elliott of the N.C.E.S. said.
But Mr. Jennings warned that allowing the reporting of results at those levels could alter the nature of the program.
"Once you go below the state level, you run the risk of converting NAEP from a thermometer test to a high-stakes test,'' he said.
Mr. Musick, however, pointed out that NAEP is currently a "no stakes'' test.
"The motivation to do well, particularly on the part of our 12th-grade students, is nil,'' he said. "I, for one, fear that we are under-reporting what our 12th graders can do.''
Moreover, he said, even if the stakes were raised, students would not feel pressured to perform to the same degree that they do on other high-stakes exams, such as high-school-graduation tests.
Ms. Ross added that some members of Congress may be concerned that altering the tests could result in a loss of valuable data on student-achievement trends.
Moreover, she said, "schools and school districts would have to be pretty big for it to be meaningful.''
A panel of experts formed by the National Academy of Education, in a report due later this month, is also expected to urge caution in moving toward reporting results at the local level.
One unanswered question is whether schools and districts would be willing to pay for the information they are requesting. Under the Administration's proposal, they would be required to foot the bill for the tabulations and to follow the same protocols they would have to follow to participate in the state-level assessment. The N.C.E.S. has not yet determined how much that would cost.
Among other modifications to NAEP, the Administration's proposal
also calls for allowing assessments to be conducted annually, rather
than every two years, and for expanding the range of subjects in which
students can be tested.