Education Dept. Policy on NAEP Release Makes Reporters Pledge Confidentiality
When advance copies of “the nation’s report card” were distributed to news reporters last week, they came with tight restrictions on who could see that information before its official public release.
The U.S. Department of Education required reporters to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to distribute the data from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress—even for comments from outside experts—until its official release a day later, Oct. 19.
“Embargoes,” in the lexicon of journalists, are restrictions on when reporters can release information given to them in advance, and they are used often by both public agencies and private organizations. Many embargoes allow reporters to seek outside comment from sources who can offer independent analysis of the information to appear in stories once the embargo is lifted. Reporters typically seek such comments to ensure balanced coverage of news events.
But last week’s confidentiality agreement for the 2005 NAEP test scores in reading and mathematics said the results could not be “copied, published, announced, or in any other way made public,” a restriction that a number of officials said covered outside comment. That language was noticeably more specific than a confidentiality agreement associated with a NAEP test-score release in July.
Too Many Copies?
The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, and the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the assessment, jointly decided rules for the embargo, said Mike Bowler, a spokesman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the arm of the Education Department that oversees the NCES.
Mr. Bowler said the embargo was strengthened from the previous NAEP release in part because the latest scores offered information on all 50 states and drew interest from regional and local reporters nationwide. Allowing all those reporters to distribute the information would have amounted to releasing the report before it was made public, he said.
He noted that the department took numerous steps to help the public and reporters digest the test data, including briefings on the results and a new Web site with detailed state-data comparisons (www.nationsreportcard.gov).
“The idea is to be helpful, and give reporters time to think about the information,” Mr. Bowler said. “If everyone’s playing by the same rules, no one’s at a disadvantage.”
Debra Silimeo, the senior vice president of Hager Sharp Inc., a public relations consultant to the NCES, said she believed confidentiality agreements had been routinely required of reporters since at least 2002, when her company began working on those test-score releases. Although she was unable to provide those documents, she said they were used in part because of the number of copies being distributed for state-by-state NAEP results.
The number of media outlets receiving embargoed information has grown since then, she said. “Just a handful of reporters had embargoed information [then],” Ms. Silimeo said. “It was a small universe of data” to oversee.
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