NAEP Ponders Plan To Develop National Performance Goals

By Robert Rothman — December 13, 1989 5 min read

Washington--The governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress is considering a plan to set national goals for student performance in the subject areas it tests.

The proposal, presented to board members late last week, is aimed at complementing the effort by President Bush and the nation’s governors to set national goals for schools, officials said. If it is approved, it could go into effect with next year’s assessment of 8th-grade mathematics.

Under the plan, the board would determine the skills and knowledge, as measured by naep test items, that ought to be mastered at each grade level in each subject area. When test results are released, board members will indicate the proportion of students tested who met the standard.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the board’s chairman, said the effort would represent a “historic breakthrough.”

“Eventually, this will translate into a definition of what grade-level performance in math really does mean,” he said. “It will result, I hope, in a consensus about what is the least 8th graders should do in math to handle high-school level math.”

Board members remain divided over whether they should recommend a single standard for all students, or whether there might be a higher standard for those who aspire to higher levels of education.

Mr. Finn said that, this question notwithstanding, the goals should encourage schools to ensure that all students learn the necessary skills and content. He acknowledged, however, that the “linkage between these goals and altering behavior is fairly weak.”

“Our job is to describe the level of performance and what the performance ought to be,” he said, “and to document a gap if there is one.”

“If nobody cares about the gap, nobody will change his behavior,” the former assistant secretary of education added. “We’re not enforcers.”

‘Good Enough’?

Though the national goal-setting effort, which began at the September education summit in Charlottesville, Va., has added impetus to its plans, the board began to consider setting performance goals as early as last year, according to Mr. Finn.

The 1988 legislation that authorized the creation of the governing board also charged it with “identifying appropriate achievement goals” for each grade and subject tested, he pointed out.

Such goals would represent a marked departure from the assessment’s traditional role, according to a staff paper prepared for the board.

“For the past 20 years,” it says, “the naep, as well as virtually all nationally standardized tests in the United States, has reported its results in terms of average performance.”

“Sometimes it has announced what proportion of students knew a certain fact or could demonstrate a certain skill,” the paper says. “But it has avoided saying whether average performance was good enough, or whether the facts and competencies it tested were ones that students really ought to know.”

The board’s goal-setting process would complement, not conflict with, the efforts by President Bush and the governors, Mr. Finn said.

“I doubt they will get as specific as setting goals for each grade level and subject,” said the Vanderbilt University professor, who also serves on the President’s advisory panel on education policy. “Somebody should. Since naep measures achievement, and the statute gives us the responsibility, it’s an appropriate thing for us to do.”

One or Two Standards?

Specifically, the staff proposal recommends that the board establish an advisory panel to examine the actual questions on the 1990 math assessment and determine which ones students need to answer correctly in order to reach the different performance levels.

The panel would be composed of teachers, scholars, curriculum specialists, college professors, and employers. Such a group would provide sufficiently broad representation for the task of choosing the test items that should be mastered, Mr. Finn maintained.

“We really do have a facsimile of a national consensus on what ought to be on the [1990 math] test,” he said. “I think a medium-sized group can make those decisions. I don’t think you want 850 people in a room trying to deal with those questions.”

Mr. Finn said the panel should recommend a single standard for grades 4, 8, and 12.

“We want to set as goals where the nation ought to be,” he said. “Every8body ought to come out of 8th grade ready for 9th grade. Everybody ought to come out of 12th grade ready for adulthood.”

Another governing-board member, Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, said the naep body might consider setting two standards--one signifying satisfactory performance, and the other for above-average achievement.

A single standard for all students, he noted, is similar to the minimum-competency standards that some states, such as Virginia, are now abandoning.

“If you set a level 98 percent of students can meet, generally that level is at such a low level, some states have determined that it has limited value,” he said.

Board members were considered unlikely to resolve the issue at last week’s meeting. And, according to Mr. Finn, the board may publish the entire proposal in the Federal Register and solicit additional comment before deciding whether to go ahead with the goal-setting process.

“This is too momentous a step to take without a public airing,” he said. “This is not something the board will want to do in a dark room.”

Aircraft Carriers and PT Boats

In a related development, board members last week were expected to consider a “white paper” outlining options for expanding the assessment to improve its data-collection ability.

The Charlottesville summit, which called for an annual “report card’’ on student achievement, created the need for greater information than naep currently provides, Mr. Finn said. At the same time, he noted, Senator Jeff Bingaman ofel10lNew Mexico has questioned the adequacy of education data.

“Eighteen months ago, the statute [that expanded naep] seemed ambitious and audacious,” said the chairman. Now, “it is not sufficient to meet the information demands we are now hearing.”

The panel was expected to consider several options, such as testing more often in more subjects, collecting district- and school-level data, and speeding up the time for developing tests and collecting the results. Many of the proposals would require additional funding or changes in law.

In addition, suggested Mr. Musick, the board should also consider setting up pilot programs “at the cutting edge” of the testing field.

“The national assessment is like an aircraft carrier,” he said. “It’s not given to swift changes in direction. But for it to be innovative, at the cutting edge, doing things that move the art of testing along, you also need pt boats.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 1989 edition of Education Week as NAEP Ponders Plan To Develop National Performance Goals