Education Commentary

Support NAEP’s Expansion; End the ‘Tyranny of Patchwork Testing’

By Thomas C. Boysen — November 11, 2016 6 min read

It was disappointing but not surprising to see administrative groups heading the list of 75 education and civil-rights organizations that sent President Bush a June “open letter” protesting the expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. These same groups--the American Association of School Administrators, the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals--were, along with the Council of Chief State School Officers, among those resisting state and local accountability features of NAEP at the time of its creation in the late 1960’s. To its credit, the CCSSO now supports NAEP’s expansion and effectively promotes accurate, comprehensive state-by-state comparisons.

NAEP has survived the last 20 years in only a watered-down form, giving tests infrequently with no state-by-state, school-district, or school results permitted. As a consequence, we now hear every few years that the nation as a whole or one of its four geographic regions has slipped another notch in reading, writing, or mathematics. With no school, district, or state-by-state results, no one can be held accountable for the results. The effect has been to darken the name of education as a whole without giving any jurisdiction the information it needs to put things right.

Another effect of this spineless NAEP is to force all of us to rely on far inferior indicators for our gauge of education effectiveness. Schools have become subject to a host of examinations sponsored by such special-interest academic groups as the National Geographic Society, the Joint Council on Economic Education, and various associations of college professors. Every year we can count on a new expose of what American students do not know about an area of learning important to someone with an ax to grind. This “keep-away curriculum” is known to test makers as they develop their items but hidden from teachers and students until “T” day.

Small wonder that our students do poorly, when they may never have studied the skills tested. Because we as school administrators have not created a credible system of performance measures, the schools we care over have become subject to raids by any group with enough money to hire a test contractor.

The most ubiquitous measure of academic quality is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, set up 50 years ago to measure students’ aptitude without influencing their high-school achievement. The notion was that by sampling essential verbal and math skills, the test could ferret out the college potential of students without affecting their curricula.

Even though the College Board protests the use of sat scores to make state-by-state comparisons, the U.S. Secretary of Education’s infamous “Wall Chart” has done just that each year since 1984. And yet, the very administrative groups that protest most against the many deficiencies of the Wall Chart are the same ones that now write the President to protest the remedy afforded by NAEP expansion.

Just what are the administrator groups’ objections to NAEP? For one, they fear a national curriculum. True, tests do drive the curriculum and a strong national testing system would shape what is taught. But this is not new. Since the advent of federal categorical programs in the 1960’s, districts have been required, as a condition of keeping their funding, to use standardized, norm-referenced tests of reading, math, and language. This duty has spawned a $300-million-per-year industry of tests such as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford Achievement Test, and others. All of these standardized tests are used nationwide and they already constitute a national curriculum. The question is whether the definition of school outcomes will be overt or covert and whether it will elevate or depress what goes on in our classrooms.

Serious questions have been raised about many of the standardized tests used to measure the nation’s schools. There is no regulation of the quality of these tests by the state or federal government. Too often they use outdated comparison norms, lack security of test items, measure a restricted curriculum, and make excessive use of multiple-choice format. The tyranny of the patchwork commercial testing we already suffer is far worse than anything NAEP might create.

The administrative groups also object to the cost of more frequent and more extensive NAEP testing. To evaluate this claim one should know how little we currently spend on educational testing. California has perhaps the most sophisticated assessment system in the country and it spends less than one-20th of 1 percent of its education budget on testing. The federal government pays a mere 7 percent of the school bill nationwide and only a tiny fraction of that goes for assessment. The cost of the new NAEP is unlikely to consume enough resources to argue about.

Administrative groups have a great deal to gain from the expansion of NAEP. The ability of a principal, instructional coordinator, or superintendent to improve a school or district depends heavily upon her or his ability to create an awareness of the need for change and to subsequently demonstrate that the reform is having the desired result. In the current patchwork of tests, clear and convincing evidence is rarely available. To the degree that the focus of school improvement can be shifted from personalities and politics to student performance, then to that degree school administrators will work in a more rational, professional environment.

In terms of student learning, clear achievement measures that are consistent for the school, district, state, and nation are long overdue. The “effective schools” research tells us that no educational variable has as much power as positive reinforcement of student movement toward a clear performance standard. This factor alone is four times more powerful than economic background in predicting school success. The expansion of NAEP and its extension to states and schools will cause us to clarify the performances we want and strengthen our ability to give good feedback to students and teachers. The so-called “paradigm shift” from process to product and the decentralization proceeding under the banner of “restructuring” will go awry if they are not supported by strong outcome measures that add up to something the public and the politicians can understand.

In this age of international economic competition, the educational product of our schools is going to be measured. The issue is how well and to what effect. If we administrators do not support the development of first-class achievement tests such as those in the NAEP system, then we will be subjected to whatever the government and the public can get their hands on.

The national “education summit” in October 1989 launched the country on a new chapter in the educational-excellence movement. The 50 governors committed themselves to set and attain national performance standards, which accelerated the move to expand NAEP. Administrators should recognize this as a chance to create standards worthy of the students and teachers victimized by the current testing mess.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week

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