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Test Proposal To Be Tested by Experts

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Philosophical differences and political deal-making have for months overshadowed the policy contained in President Clinton's proposal for national student testing. But now that Mr. Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress have agreed that the tests can move forward in a slower and more limited way, independent monitors are to begin figuring out if the planned tests are fair, accurate, and worth pursuing.

In the $29.4 billion education appropriations bill that the president signed into law last week, Congress included several steps to solicit independent, expert opinions on the proposal for voluntary tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics.

The law shifts the exclusive authority over creation of the tests, one of Mr. Clinton's top policy priorities, away from the Department of Education. And, as expected, it gives that power to an existing, independent citizens' panel, the National Assessment Governing Board. In addition, Congress asks the National Academy of Sciences to conduct three studies that will look at such issues as whether existing tests can be linked to yield the results the proposed tests are supposed to deliver. ("White House, GOP Craft Agreement on Testing," Nov. 12, 1997.)

The hope is that the two groups can examine the proposal in an objective fashion--a move education leaders outside Washington are welcoming.

Mike Ward

"I'm eager to see the whole issue move into an arena where it's less a question of partisan political debate and more a question about what's important to help chart the progress of schools," said Mike Ward, the state schools chief in North Carolina. His state is one of only seven to agree so far to take the proposed tests.

Mark D. Musick

Mr. Clinton had touted the tests as a way to hold students nationwide to uniform and high academic standards. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, among others, had pointed to the relatively low standards set by some states' assessments of student learning as a reason to make a tougher national test available.

Regardless of what conclusions the national academy and the assessment governing board come to, Congress has the power to scrap the testing idea by withholding future funding. For now, though, testing could begin no earlier than 2000, a year later than President Clinton had hoped.

Checking for Bias

Within the next 90 days, the governing board is to review the test-development contract awarded earlier this year by the Education Department to a consortium headed by the American Institutes for Research in Washington. The board is to modify the $13 million contract as it sees fit or terminate it and negotiate a new one.

The governing board, known as NAGB, is also directed to determine whether:

  • Test items already selected for use on the tests are free of racial, cultural, and gender bias.
  • The test-creation process and the existing test items assess students' reading and math knowledge in a way that is most likely to yield accurate information on student achievement.
  • The process of test development and test items take into account the needs of disadvantaged, limited-English-proficient, and disabled students.
  • That same process takes into account how parents, guardians, and students will be informed appropriately about the content, purpose, and uses of the tests.

The directive creates a broader and much more hands-on role for NAGB than it has had in its current role, setting policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP, which is administered by the Education Department, is the only ongoing, nationally representative survey of what students know and can do in core academic subjects. It was mandated by Congress and has been given since 1969.

The proposed new tests are to be based on NAEP's content and performance standards. But the new tests are to produce results for individual students, which NAEP does not do.

The assignment is a mixed blessing for the National Assessment Governing Board. Even though its members asked for the job, the board inherits an undertaking that drew criticism from both the political right and left and created divisions within the GOP and the Democratic Party.

"We know we haven't been handed a rose bouquet," said Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the governing board. "But we'll be fair, and we'll also be diligent."

Mr. Musick, who is also the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based consortium of 15 states that works to improve education, said the assessment governing board would take up the issue of the proposed new tests at its regularly scheduled meeting this week.

Because NAGB meets quarterly, Mr. Musick said he was working last week to schedule a special board meeting in January and to assemble a committee within the board to study the national test issue.

AGB's involvement makes sense from a political standpoint, said Robert L. Linn, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"One of the things [members of Congress] were upset about was this would be the Department of Education calling the shots on what the [tests'] content was, and they wanted to have a body that could be more bipartisan in nature and less a creature of the administration," said Mr. Linn, who is also the co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Waste of Time?

As directed by Congress, one of the National Academy of Sciences' studies is to figure out whether existing tests could provide the same kinds of results that the new tests would yield. If a way could be found to make scores on existing commercially available basic-skills tests comparable to each other and to those generated by state assessments and by NAEP, then that could be seen as making the national tests redundant and unnecessary.

But, according to at least one assessment expert, the academy could be wasting its time.

Edward H. Haertel, a professor of educational testing and measurement at Stanford University, said he is aware of at least three studies over the past 20 years showing that attempts to make results on several different tests comparable are not successful. One other study offered mixed results, he said.

"I would not say [the national academy] study is not worth doing," he said, "but I'd be pessimistic.

"If you want to have comparable scores, you've got to use the same test," said Mr. Haertel, who is a member of NAGB. "I can't imagine how [we would] have all these tests aligned with the NAEP frameworks."

Another national academy study is to evaluate whether the test items developed under the American Institutes for Research contract are of strong technical quality and are valid and reliable. The academy is also to gauge the degree to which test questions provide valid and useful information to the public, and whether the items are free from racial, cultural, and gender bias.

That same study is also supposed to look at two of the issues that helped make the national tests a lightning rod for controversy: Do the test items address the needs of disadvantaged, limited-English-proficient, and disabled students, and can the items be used in the academic tracking, promotion, or graduation of students?

In a third study, Congress also called on the NAS to recommend appropriate ways to ensure that existing and new tests of student performance are not used in a discriminatory manner "or inappropriately for student promotion, tracking, or graduation."

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