Published Online: October 11, 2000
Published in Print: October 11, 2000, as Panel Mulls Offering School-Level NAEP Data

Panel Mulls Offering School-Level NAEP Data

Hoping to encourage more schools to take part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, federal officials are weighing a proposal to give schools feedback on how their students perform on the exams.

Gary W. Phillips

NAEP tests—considered a national thermometer of student achievement—are given periodically to representative samples of students across the nation at three grade levels. But the program provides results only at the state and national levels. Local educators, some of whom spend three to four days administering the exams, never learn the results for their individual schools.

That is partly why some schools have begun to balk at participating in the program. Of the 48 states that indicated a willingness to take part in NAEP earlier this year, for example, eight had to back out when they were unable to recruit the required numbers of schools. ("Test- Weary Schools Balk at NAEP," Feb. 16, 2000.)

"It's an increasing problem, but it's not critical yet," said Gary W. Phillips, the acting U.S. commissioner of education statistics. "But there's been a gradual decline in school participation over time, and that's also because we're competing with other tests now."

Providing school-level scores is the most far-reaching of eight recommendations for increasing NAEP participation issued last month by a special committee of the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent national panel that sets policy for NAEP.

Among the committee's other recommendations: explaining better the purposes of the tests to local educators, hiring contractors to administer the tests in schools, testing entire grades of students in participating schools rather than handfuls from several classes, coordinating the programs' testing schedule to avoid conflicts with state tests, and providing "tool kits" with information from the tests that teachers could use to improve instruction or to link test questions to state subject-matter standards.

Costly Implications

The proposal to provide school-level data, which would require congressional approval, is particularly significant because it could change the character of the 31-year- old testing program.

"When you start reporting on what schools know and can do, you're really getting into a whole other kind of survey," said Mr. Phillips. "It moves from being a thermometer to a thermostat. I would recommend that before we attempt that, we have a national discussion about the national assessment and what we want it to do." The trick, he said, would be to redesign the test in a way that ensures accuracy and maintains the program's long-term trend data.

Some of the committee's other proposals, on the other hand, could clearly raise the federal government's cost for the testing program.

One is the recommendation to hire contractors to administer the tests at the school level, rather than putting the burden on local schools. Currently, federal officials hire contractors to manage the national NAEP test but not the state-by-state assessment.

"There would be no increase in total dollars, but there would be a shift from state dollars to federal dollars," said Michael J. Guerra, who chaired the eight-member committee.

Another big- ticket item—and one that would need no special congressional approval—is the panel's suggestion to test entire grades of students.

"The assumption is that this would be far less disruptive than the current situation in which a handful of kids are taken from several classrooms, leaving the school with the problem of what to do with the students who are not being tested," added Mr. Guerra, who is the executive director of the secondary schools department for the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington.

No Pay for Schools

The committee considered and rejected a proposal to pay schools to participate. Mr. Guerra said discussions with teachers and principals convinced panel members that such a measure would be ineffective.

The governing board will take up the report at its next meeting in November and then refer individual proposals to subcommittees for further consideration.

It's unclear, however, whether the board will make a final decision before Congress takes up reauthorization of the testing program sometime next year.

Vol. 20, Issue 6, Page 5

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