NAEP Plan To Set Performance Goals Questioned

By Robert Rothman — January 31, 1990 4 min read

Washington--The plan by the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to set national standards for student performance would be unlikely to boost achievement for most students, educators warned here last week.

Under the plan unveiled in December, the board would set goals for student achievement in grades 4, 8, and 12 in each subject area tested.

The aim, board members said, is to establish a clear definition of what performance ought to be and to determine the proportion of students who meet the standard.

But Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the board last week that creating a single standard would lead schools to focus their efforts on improving achievement for students just below that level, and to give less attention to those well above or below it.

“I don’t want another set of goals and assessments that will give people a strong incentive not to deal with the 50 percent to 60 percent of students who will not be showing up on the counts,” he said at a board hearing. “That’s what this does.”

Moreover, added Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the proposed performance goals offer little guidance for schools with inadequate curricula.

“I have no confidence,” he said, “that if we take this track, five years from now achievement in New York City, Chicago, and Eagle Pass, Tex., will be one whit different” than it is now.

“We have to get the curriculum in order before we set a decent standard,” Mr. Cawelti said.

The two educators urged the board to consider other goal-setting options before deciding on a final course of action.

“We’re so close to being willing to do something like this, it would be a damn shame if we don’t do it right,” Mr. Shanker said.

One Standard or Two?

The hearing was aimed, naep officials said, at gauging public reaction to the board’s proposal for national performance goals. The board is expected to consider the plan in March; if it is approved, it could go into effect with this year’s assessment in mathematics.

In a letter read at the hearing, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos noted that the plan would be in keeping with the board’s statutory charge to identify “appropriate achievement goals for each age and grade in each subject area to be tested.”

In addition, Mr. Cavazos wrote, the plan “is a constructive and complementary addition to the work of the President and the governors as they establish goals for performance of the nation’s education system.’'

Much of the discussion at the hearing focused on whether the board should set a single standard for each grade, or different standards for students at different levels of achievement.

A. Graham Down, executive director of the Council for Basic Education, urged the board to set a single standard. Setting more than one goal, he said, would limit options for low-achieving students.

“For the governing board to establish higher standards for the college-bound is to encourage the division of students into tracks that lead to either continuing learning or low-level jobs,” he said, adding that disadvantaged youths “are always the first predestined for the vocational track.”

But Mr. Shanker said the board should consider setting several standards to encourage schools to improve all students’ achievement. For example, he said, the board could determine how many students at each grade level should perform at minimal, advanced, and adept levels.

“It will take mass education,” he acknowledged, “but the public is capable of thinking in terms of more than a single score.”

A National Curriculum?

Representatives of the National Conference of State Legislaturesand the National Association of Secondary School Principals also warned that the setting of national performance goals could lead to a national curriculum.

Schools may, nassp suggested in a statement, “start teaching to naep’s tests, or else emphasizing only those subjects regularly evaluated.”

Such practices would be particularly harmful, added D. Monty Neill, assistant director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, because naep relies primarily on multiple-choice tests, which he argued narrow the curriculum.

“You will, in effect, sabotage the possibilities of reform,” he said.

But Denis P. Doyle, senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute, suggested that the United States already has a de facto national curriculum, and he urged the board to design a test to measure it.

“The nation does have an intellectual center of gravity,” he said, “and the course requirements of the nation’s 15,000-odd school districts and 50 states are much more alike than dissimilar.”

“The questions naep asks can--indeed, will--drive a national curriculum,” Mr. Doyle said, “and should be done so explicitly and by design. Make no bones about it.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 1990 edition of Education Week as NAEP Plan To Set Performance Goals Questioned