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Panel Faces Challenges In Drafting Blueprint For First National Tests

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Like infantry soldiers moving through a minefield, a national panel has cautiously begun unearthing the challenges that lie before President Clinton's proposal for voluntary new national student tests in reading and math.

The group, which met here for the first time on May 23, was pulled together by the Council of Chief State School Officers and MPR Associates, a California-based consulting firm. Its task is to draw up a blueprint for the assessments, which are expected to cost around $22 million over the next two years.

The job is a big one because the United States has never before had a national assessment that yielded results for individual students. Some in Congress, in fact, have questioned the Department of Education's authority to launch such a program. ("Rep. Goodling Fails To Block Funding for New Tests," May 21, 1997.)

The exams, designed for 4th graders in reading and for 8th graders in mathematics, are to be given for the first time in 1999.

The Education Department, which is overseeing development of the tests, wants to model them on the subject-area tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated testing program that has been in place since 1969. The results of the new math tests will also be statistically linked to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which tested students in 41 nations, so that individual American students can get an idea of how they stack up against their peers.

But naep tests are given to samples of students who take different, 45-minute-long chunks of the total assessment. Also, students never find out how they scored. The new national tests, by contrast, will be 90 minutes long, and each participating student will take the entire test.

"One of the major challenges here is how do you make the transition from the NAEP design, in which students are sampled, to individual student tests?" said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the CCSSO, which helped write specifications for two earlier NAEP tests. The Education Department contracted with the state chiefs' group and MPR Associates to launch the process of designing the new assessments.

The difference in the two test formats means, for example, that the new tests might not cover as much subject-matter content in one year as NAEP tests do now. One job of the panel is to decide how to parcel out the topic coverage in each subject.

Balancing Acts

The time limits also raise questions about the mix of quick-answer, multiple-choice questions and time-consuming, open-ended questions. The Education Department has proposed making 80 percent of the test multiple-choice and 20 percent open-ended--including one extended-response item.

Gary W. Phillips, the executive director of the voluntary national testing program for the department, said teachers will receive a second booklet of extended-response items to use as they see fit.

The panelists will also have to decide how much weight to give individual test items when calculating students' scores ."Just think how you would feel if there were 10 items and most were multiple-choice and one was longer. Why waste a lot of time and effort if it counts the same?" Barbara Kapinus, the director of the curriculum and instructional-improvement program for the CCSSO, told the group.

Other issues before the panel include whether students should be allowed to use calculators on the mathematics examandwhat the mix should be between easier and more difficult questions.

In other words, said Joan Baratz Snowden, the deputy director of the American Federation of Teachers' educational issues department: "What is the balance between what is being taught in America today and what we think should be taught in America today, and how do we do that without getting half the children in America weeping when they get the test results?" Ms. Snowden served as a substitute panelist at the recent meeting.

The panel, which includes academics, policymakers, and representatives of major national education organizations, started work last month at the Department of Education's request. Its final specifications, due in August, will be given to a test developer to be named by the department in September.

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