Better Student-Performance Data Needed, Panel Told

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The federal government must enhance its ability to monitor student performance if the nation's schools are to achieve the goals outlined during President Bush's education summit with governors in September, education researchers told a Senate subcommittee last week.

The officials recommended, however, that the Congress refrain from forcing all states to participate in a comparative assessment of student achievement.

The remarks came during a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Government Information and Regulation on the quality of Education Department data on student achievement. The panel was created by the Committee on Governmental Affairs last winter to monitor government information policy.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said he called the hearing because he believes the federal government must develop "an educational information infrastructure" if it is to measure states' progress toward meeting the goals expected to arise from the education summit.

"As we begin the task of improving education, we must not forget that any rebuilding or reform effort must first begin with a firm foundation, a baseline from which growth can be charted," Mr. Bingaman said.

Education data now collected and disseminated by the federal government are "vague and uncoordinated," the senator said. He noted that parents who want to learn how their children compare with students in neighboring districts and states frequently find "the type of comprehensive, useful information they need is unavailable."

But researchers invited to testify before the panel said that the federal education-research budget would have to be increased significantly in order to gather the type of information requested by Mr. Bingaman.

They also noted that federal testing policies would have to be changed and the department's information-gathering branches would have to be overhauled.

Such an effort must be undertaken "on a 'crash' basis" if the govern8ment is to surmount the political and financial barriers that have stalled previous studies of educational progress, said Chester E. Finn Jr., chairman of the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The government, he added, must obtain information "while we still remember that we need it."

Christopher T. Cross, the department's newly appointed assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, noted that naep provides the only nationally representative sample of student performance at certain age and grade levels, and most likely will be "one of the important building blocks" for creating a system to gauge the progress of the nation's schools toward meeting the forthcoming national education goals.

Although naep was originally structured to prevent state-by-state or district-by-district comparisons, a law authorizing a pilot state-level analysis of naep test results was enacted last year.

Participation in the state-by-state comparison was not mandatory, however. Twelve states decided not to participate in a comparative study of 8th graders' math skills planned for 1990.

Mr. Cross said the voluntary nature of naep limits its usefulness as a tool for measuring performance against national goals.

But Mr. Finn cautioned against requiring states to participate in state-by-state analyses. He suggested that public pressure eventually will force many states to take part.

Mr. Cross also noted that the federal government would be obligated to pay the full cost of the new analsyes if it mandates state participation.

H. Dickson Corbett, director of Research for Better Schools, a federally sponsored educational research laboratory based in Philadelphia, suggested that federal research efforts should focus on diagnosing weaknesses in educational systems rather than weaknesses in students.

"Too much important work is needed on how to assess the quality of educators' and students' actual behavior to spend resources on tinkering with fine-tuning the assessment of indicators of student learning," Mr. Corbett said.

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