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E.D. Urges More Students Be Included in NAEP

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Washington

The U.S. Education Department is urging that greater efforts be made to include students with disabilities or limited English proficiency in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The federal program tests as many as 20,000 students in key academic subjects each year and is often used as a barometer of student achievement.

Yet, as many as 15 percent of 17-year-olds may be excluded from taking the assessments because they are incarcerated, have dropped out of school, have limited English proficiency, or are disabled.

Experts say that excluding a large portion of students raises questions about NAEP's ability to report accurately on the overall achievement of American students.

It also conflicts with the Clinton Administration's emphasis on setting high standards for all children.

"If you need to err, you need to err on the side of assessing versus not assessing,'' Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary for civil rights, told the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy, at its quarterly meeting May 12.

Ms. Cantu's plea was seconded by officials from the federal offices that oversee special education, bilingual education, and educational research.

NAEP now includes in its testing pool about half of the five million students with disabilities in the United States. But experts estimate that 85 percent of all students with disabilities could be included in the assessments without making "any significant accommodations,'' said Emerson J. Elliott, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Making Accommodations

Such students may need more time to take the test, he said, or a separate room in which to complete the assessments. The remaining 15 percent would need more substantial adjustments, such as tests given in braille.

"We expect that there would be a small percentage of students who would not be able to be tested using traditional materials,'' said Judith Heumann, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, "but that the vast majority can be.''

The federal officials said that data on how disabled or L.E.P. students perform on the assessments could provide evidence of whether they are receiving adequate instruction. The Education Department already uses NAEP data as one source of information for monitoring court decisions.

The assessment uses a sampling technique to reflect the overall performance of American students. Within each state, 100 public schools are selected to participate in NAEP. Within each school, at least 30 students are chosen at random to be tested.

But because paper-and-pencil assessments may not accurately reflect the achievement of some students with disabilities or limited English proficiency, schools are allowed to exclude such students from the exams, following guidelines approved by the governing board in 1989.

In practice, however, the rates at which states exclude students from the tests vary widely, raising questions about the accuracy of state-by-state comparisons.

In addition, Mr. Emerson suggested, the current exclusion criteria may not be appropriate. Schools may exclude a student with a disability based, in part, on whether the student is "mainstreamed'' in regular classes less than 50 percent of the time.

New Guidelines in the Works

It may be better to base participation on whether students are taking "substantially the same curriculum'' as other students, Mr. Elliott said.

But he also warned that it could be hard to interpret trend data if the population of students tested changes significantly over time.

Making substantial accommodations so that all students can be tested--such as providing a version in braille--is also costly. And it raises questions about whether the test is really measuring the same skills for everyone.

The N.C.E.S. has underwritten a number of studies to explore such issues, including the feasibility of developing a Spanish-language version of the assessment.

The governing board asked to hear more about the studies--and the costs of such accommodations--at its next meeting.

The Administration also plans to present a new set of guidelines for including students in NAEP to the board in August. Changes would have to be approved by the end of this calendar year to be reflected in 1995 assessments.

During the meeting, Administration officials and members of the governing board also reprimanded the Educational Testing Service, which conducts NAEP under contract, for prematurely releasing the results from two upcoming NAEP reports.

The E.T.S. employees reported at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association that, at least at the 8th-grade level, American students' writing skills are improving. (See Education Week, April 20, 1994).

The N.C.E.S., not its contractors or grantees, is supposed to release NAEP findings.

Mr. Elliott said he is particularly upset because there are still some "technical concerns'' about whether the improvement found at the 8th grade is accurate, or whether it is the result of a testing anomaly, such as a change in test procedure.

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