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Published in Print: November 6, 2002, as NAEP Board Initiates Reading-Test Overhaul

NAEP Board Initiates Reading-Test Overhaul

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The governing board that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress will weigh whether the framework for the NAEP reading test should be modified to better reflect changes in instruction over the past several years.

Such a shift in the reading assessment, which primarily tests students' comprehension and critical-thinking skills in grades 4, 8, and 12, could make it difficult—or impossible—to gauge student progress since previous tests.

The board hired a contractor last month to develop the NAEP reading framework that will serve as a guide for the test, beginning with its 2007 administration. For the first time, the contract does not require that future tests yield results comparable with those on previous NAEP exams. That flexibility could lead to changes that reflect what are deemed scientifically proven teaching methods, which are being promoted under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. Those methods, which have been guiding many state and local reading policies and practices in recent years, have led to a greater emphasis on the teaching of phonics and other basic skills in the early grades.

But the governing board will have to weigh the potential problems states may face if NAEP cannot be used to compare student achievement over time.

"It's going to be a balancing act," said Roy Truby, who retired last week as the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board. "In the past, we have commissioned framework revisions with the stipulation that they make whatever changes they have to make, [but only to the] point where we would not have to lose trend data."

The board awarded a $1.1 million contract last month to the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, to develop the framework. AIR will work with the Council of Chief State School Officers to recruit committees of teachers, parents, and reading experts to gather recommendations for the new guidelines.

Michael L. Kamil, a professor of language and literacy at Stanford University and a member of the National Reading Panel, will head the planning group.

AIR will also solicit research reviews and issues papers from experts for presentation to the governing board by the end of this year.

What Should Be Tested?

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, states and districts receiving federal reading grants must spend the money on instructional methods and materials that have scientifically based evidence of their effectiveness.

Those grant recipients must craft reading plans incorporating the five components of effective instruction outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act: phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters), phonics (a technique to help youngsters make those associations), fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

The national assessment, however, does not generally test students' basic reading skills. It is not yet clear if the new framework will do so. While some observers say NAEP should provide information on whether current efforts to improve reading instruction are affecting student achievement, such adjustments in the test should not come, they say, at the expense of trend data that could be lost if the new exam changes too drastically from past NAEP reading tests.

"With all of the reform momentum with No Child Left Behind and the states' own reforms, abandoning the trend opens up the possibility of eliminating information we need to answer whether they're working," said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, a Newark, Del.-based organization representing 60,000 teachers and scholars. "It should be comprised to be sensitive to the kinds of teaching being advocated right now, ... but without abandoning the higher-level-thinking and writing skills that are now tested."

The NAEP governing board will also consider whether to adjust the achievement standards that define whether a student is performing at the "below basic," "basic," "proficient," or "advanced" level in reading. The levels, which are considered rigorous, are being used on a trial basis because they have not been deemed valid.

Vol. 22, Issue 10, Pages 25,28

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