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Why NAEP Needs Its Independent Governing Board

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The United States needs reliable, representative information about what American students know and can do. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the primary means of providing that information. Its examinations, policies, and results can have a powerful impact. By providing the only comparable state-by-state data on academic achievement, NAEP can help states in setting education policies. By offering the only measure of student learning that is representative nationwide, it can help track progress toward the national education goals.

The potential power and prominence of the national assessment make it vital that policy decisions about NAEP be made through a broadly based and public process. The assessment should be shielded from partisan politics and narrow bureaucratic concerns. This requires: (a) that NAEP's many stakeholders be substantively involved in making decisions; (b) that policymaking be kept at arm's length from the U.S. Education Department--both from the political levels and the bureaucracy; and (c) that the agency or body which decides the content of NAEP exams and how to report them be primarily concerned with the assessment itself--and not be stretched thin with other, countervailing responsibilities.

Doing all this helps protect the integrity of the national assessment and allows NAEP to serve as a vital monitor and catalyst of education reform. It avoids the dangers and divisiveness of federal control. Since 1988, this crucial role has been assigned to the National Assessment Governing Board.

Because NAEP is too important to be left to any one segment, the independent, 14-member board brings together a wide range of interests: two governors and two state legislators from both political parties; two chief state school officers; classroom teachers; local school officials; testing experts; and public and business representatives. Members are named by the Secretary of Education to staggered four-year terms from lists proposed by the N.A.G.B. itself in various categories. During the past five years, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware have been among the governors serving on the National Assessment Governing Board. Govs. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Steve Merrill of New Hampshire serve now.

As a result of this structure, no one group can control NAEP's agenda and policies. Decisions by the board carry a broad mandate. And the board has worked together well--in developing assessment frameworks for such controversial subjects as U.S. history and reading, in reviewing the appropriateness of NAEP questions, in deciding the formats for state comparisons, and in setting performance standards on NAEP exams. All these matters require complex policy judgments and cannot readily be settled by statistical criteria or expert opinion. No board with some other focus--whether on politics, curriculum, or statistics--could work the same way. No federal official could or should do the job.

Before making decisions, the board has consulted widely. It often has had to weigh conflicting advice, even from experts. The differing backgrounds of board members--with governors sitting next to classroom teachers and assessment scholars--have enabled the N.A.G.B. to make NAEP policy in the "big picture'' context of education reform tempered by the practical knowledge of teachers and test-makers.

The basic rationale for a strong, independent NAEP policy board was stated by a blue-ribbon study group that recommended the board's creation in 1987. "The governance and policy direction of the national assessment,'' the study commission wrote, "should be furnished by a broadly representative [panel] that provides wisdom, stability, and continuity; that is charged with meshing the assessment needs of states and localities with those of the nation; that is accountable to the public and to the federal government for stewardship of this important activity; but that is itself buffered from manipulation by any individual, level of government, or special interest within the field of education.''

The study commission reflected the broad bipartisan nature which now characterizes the National Assessment Governing Board. Its 22 members included former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Hillary Rodham Clinton of Arkansas; and Francis Keppel, the U.S Commissioner of Education under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who played a central role in creating NAEP in the 1960's. In a commentary accompanying the commission report, the National Academy of Education endorsed the establishment of "a strong and independent'' NAEP board.

The governing board was authorized at the same time NAEP was expanded to include voluntary state-level assessments and "appropriate achievement goals.'' In the program's more limited configuration before that, policymaking was vested in a grantee--either the Education Commission of the States or the Educational Testing Service, which maintained a policy advisory committee. But both the study commission and Congress felt such a "closed shop'' was insufficient for NAEP's new roles.

The present structure of the national assessment includes a system of "checks and balances'':

  • Policymaking by an independent, broadly based board.
  • Program administration by the Education Department through its National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Program operation by awardees, such as the E.T.S.

The Clinton Administration has proposed a reauthorization bill (HR 3562) which preserves this sound structure. Another proposal, passed last week by the House Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee, would eliminate it, placing full authority over NAEP in the hands of a federal official, the commissioner of education statistics. (See story, page 16.)

Under the subcommittee bill, the Advisory Council on Education Statistics, composed largely of statisticians and education researchers, would advise the commissioner on NAEP issues. That would be in addition to the principal function of this group, which has no independent staff, of advising on the statistical quality of the many N.C.E.S. survey reports.

By disbanding the National Assessment Governing Board, the subcommittee plan would exclude the interests of states and other education stakeholders in the governance of NAEP. It would end broad-based public accountability and instead concentrate power in a single federal official. It would threaten the development of high student-performance standards on NAEP, which require the mandate and commitment that only a widely representative board can give.

In a resolution passed at its winter meeting, the National Governors' Association underscored the need for an independent board to set policy for NAEP. As the resolution said, the N.A.G.B. "is broadly representative of state and local interests, insures public accountability, and maintains the appropriate federal/state partnership in education decisionmaking including the establishment of national, not federal, performance goals for reporting assessment results.''

By contrast, the House proposal would turn NAEP back into a federally controlled testing program. And this, in turn, would make it vulnerable to parochial pressures and political demands. The assessment itself might well be damaged or curtailed at a time when NAEP is vitally needed in the structure of education reform.

Mark D. Musick is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board and the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board.

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