Urban Districts Seek Funding For NAEP Trial
A group of urban districts wants money from Congress to help measure student achievement across cities, using a federal testing program.
The Council of the Great City Schools, a membership organization representing nearly 60 of the nation's large urban school systems, would like to use the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the "nation's report card," to compare results from city to city on a trial basis. The congressionally mandated program, which tests a sampling of students in a variety of subjects, already provides the best source of comparable information about student achievement at the national and state levels.
"The council and its members are fully committed to the standards movement," said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the organization, in explaining the request. "Yet, we have little way to measure our progress.
"We can't tell from all the overlapping and conflicting assessments whether or not we're making any headway," he said.
Currently, district choose their own standardized exams to measure student learning, in addition to those mandated by the states.
Mr. Casserly made his request at the November meeting of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. The council wants the governing board to support its request for funding in the coming congressional session, when NAEP is up for reauthorization.
Under current law, the federal government pays most of the cost for state-level comparisons of student performance on NAEP. If districts want local results, they must bear the cost of administering the test to large enough samples of their students. The council would like the federal government to pay for the trial and for an independent evaluation that would assess the feasibility, validity, fairness, and accuracy of conducting such district-level comparisons on a regular basis.
Urban districts would volunteer to participate in the study, under Mr. Casserly's proposal. The number of districts and the cost of the project had not yet been determined last week. The council plans to submit a more detailed request to NAGB's executive committee within the next few weeks.
The proposal received a warm initial reception from members of the governing board. "I think those of us around this table know what a significant proposal this is," said Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the board and the president of the Atlanta- based Southern Regional Education Board.
Ten years ago, he said, it would have been unthinkable that urban school systems would be seeking such a tough, comparable measure of performance.
"We're not afraid of the results," Mr. Casserly replied. "We know we're behind, and we want to catch up."
The council's member districts enroll about 14 percent of U.S. public school students, including 35 percent of those poor enough to qualify for subsidized school lunches and 30 percent of the nation's minority students.
The Council of the Great City Schools' request at the governing board's Nov. 17-18 meeting reflects the increasing role that NAEP is playing in discussions about school improvement initiatives and educational accountability.
Both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in this year's election and the Senate have proposed providing financial rewards for schools that upgrade student achievement or that minimize the gap between high and low performers. Although the details of all three proposals have not been fleshed out, observers have speculated that NAEP would be used to measure such improvement or to verify the results from state and local assessments.
But several experts warned the governing board that using NAEP in a more high- stakes environment could undermine the assessment program in the long run. Archie E. LaPointe, who used to administer NAEP under a federal contract with the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, said the national assessment is currently "the antithesis of a high-stakes test, and what is being proposed in the rewards context is a high-stakes environment."
How such a use of NAEP would affect students' motivation to perform on the exam, or the motivation of principals and teachers to adjust their curricula and instruction to reflect what is tested, "we just don't know," said Mr. LaPointe, who is now the executive director of the school- and college-services division of the ETS. "Certainly, it would not be the benign instrument and the benign environment that it is today."
The conversion to higher stakes also would require testing many more students on a more frequent basis, greatly increasing the cost of the program, he said.
A better alternative, he suggested, would be to create a new assessment for the specific purpose of administering an awards program, using NAEP items that have already been released to the public as well as the more than 2,000 NAEP-like questions that have been created for a new voluntary national test that was proposed by President Clinton but essentially blocked in Congress.
Richard Wolfe, a professor of education at the University of Toronto, warned the board that the margin of error for state NAEP results is currently too wide to determine which states should be rewarded for student achievement gains. And Paul Black, a professor of education at King's College, London, argued that, under the proposals, NAEP's role would shift from that of a "neutral measurement agency" to one that exercises a "central and influential function over U.S. education as a whole." Such a shift, he cautioned, should not be done by stealth.
But Diane Ravitch, a member of the governing board and a scholar at New York University, said she wanted to hear from people on the other side of the argument before making any decisions. "I think it's important that we hear from people who disagree with each other," she said.
The board also continued earlier discussions about how to report NAEP results when the percentage of students excluded from the assessment or given accommodations to take it varies so widely across states.
Board members agreed to note on all future reports any state or national sample in which the exclusion rate has changed by 3 percentage points or more from a previous assessment. Charts with comparisons of jurisdictions also will be accompanied by text calling attention to differences in exclusion rates.
Vol. 20, Issue 13, Pages 19-20