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Study Assails Waste in Oversight of NAEP

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Washington

Time and taxpayer dollars have been wasted because of confusion over who is really in charge of "the nation's report card," a newly completed report concludes.

Two agencies, one run by the Department of Education, and the other an independent entity created by Congress, compete too directly for the authority to make decisions about the National Assessment of Educational Progress, says the report, a management review by an accounting firm.

NAEP, the congressionally mandated, ongoing measure of U.S. students' academic knowledge and skills, also would be better served if the agencies responsible for it had a better sense of their audience and their priorities, the report says.

The six-month, $250,000 study, commissioned by the Education Department, was written by analysts from KPMG Peat Marwick LLP, with U.S. headquarters in New York City, and Mathtech Inc. of Princeton, N.J. The analysts reviewed the roles of the department's National Center for Education Statistics and the independent National Assessment Governing Board in directing NAEP.

The report calls the overall decisionmaking structure for NAEP "nearly unworkable" and "almost guaranteed to be mistake-prone, high-cost, slow, and full of continuing controversy." The authors add: "It is remarkable that the participants in the enterprise do as well as they have."

The assessment has been given since 1969 to a nationally representative sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in a variety of academic subjects. The statistics center administers NAEP, which is conducted by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. The 26-member governing board sets policy for the assessment.

The management review suggests that the governing board could continue to select which subjects to test, decide how often to conduct the assessment, and set performance standards. But beyond that, it says, the board's role should be limited to advice and counsel, not decisionmaking. "In business terms," the report says, "nagb has been seeking to function as the CEO rather than the board of directors of the NAEP enterprise."

Conflict and Confusion

By airing the management issues besetting the agencies that oversee the national assessment, the report makes public tension between the Education Department's statistics center and the governing board that has existed since the board's creation in 1988.

The study finds that the attempt by the statistics center and the governing board to make virtually every decision about the assessment by consensus "appears to contribute to uncertainty and cost." The report says that strategy delayed by four months the release of a report on 1994 reading results.

The conflict between the center and the board over authority to make decisions is made worse, the report says, because there is no process for resolving disputes. That vacuum can--unwisely--draw in senior political officials at the Education Department, it says.

The "confusing and contentious" environment among officials at the statistics center and the governing board also is likely to influence the national assessment's grantees, such as the ETS, the study says, resulting in overly generous schedules and "conservative or padded budgets."

Among other recommendations, the study says the statistics center and the board should clarify priorities and schedules for serving the highest-priority customers of the assessment and restructure cooperative agreements with grantees to offer incentives for them to help control or manage costs.

'Fair' or Flawed?

Jeanne Griffith, the acting commissioner of the statistics center, said she agreed with many of the report's recommendations and called its conclusions fair.

"I think they provide a lot of insight for change and improvement for all the pertinent parties who are all together trying to achieve a more efficient and effective and useful NAEP," she said. Ms. Griffith said talks would start shortly about how to respond to the review's findings.

But Mary R. Blanton, the vice chairwoman of the governing board, said she disagreed strongly with many of the conclusions. She said board members were disappointed that the report, which was supposed to find ways to save money in the NAEP budget, made virtually no such suggestions.

Ms. Blanton, a North Carolina lawyer, said she would favor remedying confusion over decisionmaking authority by giving the board more of that power. The study, she said, seemed to misunderstand the role Congress intended for the board.

"The fact there is this nonfederal, nonbureaucratic board that is overseeing [NAEP] gives it a lot more credence with the American people, with state testing people, with all of those people that Congress intended to be the audience for the test," Ms. Blanton argued.

She said she also found fault with the report because it seemed to ignore the governing board's draft strategic plan and expected redesign of the assessment. Some of the report's recommendations, are part of that plan. (See Education Week, May 22, 1996.)

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