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N.A.S. Board Ponders Role in Policy Debate on Testing

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A national board designed to bring scientific expertise to bear on the issues surrounding testing and assessment last week heard varied opinions on how it could best contribute to the policydebate.

The National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, last July created the Board on Testing and Assessment, with more than $500,000 in funding from the Defense, Education, and Labor departments.

Its members include experts from a range of social-science disciplines who are expected to provide an informed and neutral voice in the increasingly heated debate over standards and assessments.

The board is expected to analyze innovations in the field, help agencies coordinate their policies, and conduct in-depth studies of technical and policy issues.

Last week's board workshop, which was the first open to the public, was designed to help members consider the most "productive roles'' the board might play. During the daylong session, members heard presentations from various education experts, who discussed the most pressing policy issues and suggested avenues for additional research or study. Although the workshop focused on schooling, the board is expected to examine testing and assessment issues in both the education and employment fields.

A 'Counterweight'

Several presenters suggested that the board could serve as a technical resource for the proposed National Education Standards and Improvement Council, or NESIC, which Congress is expected to create as part of the "goals 2000: educate America act.''

The council, together with the National Education Goals Panel, would review national and state standards and assessments and certify them as "world class.''

Some critics have charged that NESIC would lack the technical expertise needed to conduct such reviews. Daniel Koretz, a testing expert with the RAND Corporation, said the board could serve as a "counterweight'' to NESIC by raising important technical questions.

But Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the board could play a more useful role by helping NESIC sort through the processes and criteria that it might use to review and approve standards and assessments.

Mr. Ambach also said there is no good definition of what "world class'' means or how to go about benchmarking the proposed standards with those in other countries.

The new testing requirements that Congress is considering under Chapter 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could also pose a "colossal'' challenge for states, Mr. Ambach said.

Under the bill approved by the House, each state would have to develop or adopt "high-quality assessments'' that could be used to evaluate program quality and to determine whether individual students were meeting the state's performance standards.

The assessments and standards for Chapter 1 students would have to be the same as those used for all children in the state. Many observers predict that the proposed requirements ultimately will drive the changes in state assessment systems.

Mr. Ambach said the board could help states determine the mix of matrix and individual-student testing that would be needed to meet the federal requirements. It could also help states and school districts design ways to phase out existing assessments and put new ones in place.

But perhaps the most important role the board could play, some suggested, is to clarify the appropriate purposes and uses of assessments and to remind policymakers about what is feasible, given the current state of scientific knowledge.

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