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States Set To Examine How To Make Testing Nationally Comparable

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One of the snags in comparing academic performance nationwide is that states each have their own ways of measuring what students know and are able to do.

More and more, though, state leaders are eager to have some company when it comes to the difficult and politically risky work of ratcheting up expectations for students. So, next week in Washington, representatives from more than a dozen states plan to meet to see if they can figure out ways to compare the now-distinctive results of their statewide assessments of student learning.

The meeting is the first event organized by Achieve, the Cambridge, Mass.-based independent resource center for governors and business leaders on academic standards and assessments. Achieve was created after the 1996 national education summit of governors and corporate executives in Palisades, N.Y.

Some states have taken heat recently for state test results that show their students doing significantly better than do the results from the federally run National Assessment of Educational Progress--leading some to charge their academic bars are set too low. NAEP is the only long-term national assessment of student achievement in core subjects.

But if states can compare their test results directly with those of other states, "it will help cut into this problem of having unrealistically low expectations," said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve.

Mr. Schwartz pointed out that Achieve wants to help states compare the scores of individual students. States that take part in NAEP now are able to compare achievement only on a state-by-state basis.

No Waiting

The Clinton administration has its own widely debated plan, now on hold, for creating two new measures of individual student performance that would be comparable across the states: voluntary national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math.

The meeting scheduled for next week should not be interpreted as commentary by the governors on President Clinton's proposal, Mr. Schwartz said. The state chief executives are simply saying, "Let's not wait around for this issue to get resolved in Washington," he said.

"None of this," Mr. Schwartz said, "should preclude the states from deciding to participate in a national test if and when that becomes available."

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat who sits on Achieve's board of directors, agreed. "This is a depoliticized approach to the same end," he said.

It was Mr. Romer's idea to push for a state meeting on assessment comparability. Colorado has just released disheartening results from a rigorous new state assessment and would like not to be left clinging alone to the limb of high expectations. ("Colo. Officials Couldn't Be Happier With Low Scores," Nov. 26, 1997.)

"We need to have additional clarification that we're accurate so that our own citizens know our assessments are geared to the right standards," Mr. Romer said in a telephone interview last week.

Teams from at least 13 states are expected to attend the Washington meeting--Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Three Approaches

Mr. Schwartz said he envisions three ways that states could work toward common assessment results. One is for them to use existing standards-based assessments that express results in terms of set criteria rather than how students did compared with others nationwide. Examples include the College Board's Pacesetter exams for high school students and the New Standards Reference Exams for grades 4, 8, and 12, he said.

Alternatively, states might dip into a common pool of items that could be embedded in their existing assessments or create common state assessments from scratch.

Mr. Schwartz said Achieve's effort does not duplicate a standards and assessment consortium run by the Council of Chief State School Officers. That program, the State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards, does not focus on comparable test results but is designed to improve the quality of student assessments and reduce the time and cost required to implement them.

In a separate development, Achieve has announced it will work, beginning this month, with the Washington-based Council for Basic Education and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh to pilot-test a new service to help states benchmark their standards and assessments against national and international models. Michigan and North Carolina are to be the first users.

Web Only

Web Resources
  • Read an overview of Achieve's first annual report, on the Achieve Web site.
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