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House Subcommittee Approves Proposal To Abolish NAEP Board

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Washington

The independent board that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress would be abolished under a proposal approved last week by a House subcommittee.

Created in 1988 to oversee the federal testing program, the National Assessment Governing Board has been embroiled in controversy almost since its inception. Last week, the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, in voting to approve legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, apparently decided that the NAEP program would be better off without it.

The measure the subcommittee approved would turn responsibility for the assessment over to the commissioner of education statistics--an Education Department official--and to the Advisory Council on Statistics, an existing panel of educators, researchers, statisticians, and policymakers that would be expanded to take on the new duties.

"The subcommittee does not feel a board like the N.A.G.B. is necessary,'' said Jefferson S. McFarland, a subcommittee aide, "and, frankly, we've not been real pleased with its performance.''

Political Pressures Feared

But the move is generating opposition from current and former N.A.G.B. members and from the nation's governors. They fear that states will lose the strong voice they now have on the board in setting policy for NAEP.

"The House proposal would turn NAEP back into a federally controlled testing program,'' said the N.A.G.B.'s chairman, Mark D. Musick. "And this, in turn, would make it vulnerable to parochial pressures and political demands.''

Congressionally mandated NAEP examinations have been given to national samples of students since 1969.

The idea of setting up an independent board to oversee NAEP grew out of a 1987 report by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. That panel--which included Hillary Rodham Clinton, now the First Lady--said that such a board should be "buffered from manipulation by any individual, level of government, or special-interest group.''

A Mistake?

The 24 members of the bipartisan governing board are named by the Secretary of Education from lists drawn up by the board itself. They include two governors, two state legislators, two chief state school officers, teachers, local school administrators, testing experts, and business representatives.

House members have long complained that they never had an opportunity to carefully consider the wisdom of creating the N.A.G.B. The proposal to do so was included in the Senate version of a 1988 bill to reauthorize NAEP; it was retained in the agreement that emerged from a House-Senate conference.

"Now we think we made a mistake,'' Mr. McFarland said.

Congressional criticism of the board stems primarily from its efforts to set achievement levels to characterize student performance. Since 1992, scores have been grouped by three levels--basic, proficient, and advanced.

At least three reviews by experts have been critical of that effort. The sharpest of those criticisms came last September from the National Academy of Education, which said that the methods used to set achievement levels were "fundamentally flawed.''

"The N.A.G.B.'s response to the criticism has been to provide their own critiques of the criticisms, and it just isn't constructive,'' Mr. McFarland said.

But Mr. Musick said the board has not ignored expert advice.

"We find technical experts who agree with us and technical experts who disagree,'' he said.

Mr. Musick also argued that NAEP would get less attention if responsibility for it were shifted to the statistics council, which already has other duties.

The N.A.G.B. has enlisted the support of the National Governors' Association, which was meeting here last week. The governors approved a resolution supporting retention of the board.

And Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., a former N.A.G.B. member, will offer an amendment to retain the board when the E.S.E.A. bill is considered by the full Education and Labor Committee this week, a spokeswoman said.

The Clinton Administration supports reauthorizing the N.A.G.B. in its present form. The Administration has also proposed allowing NAEP scores to be reported at the school district level for the first time, which the House bill would not do.

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