2 Groups Laying Plans To Develop National Exams

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Contending that the current array of national, state, and local tests is inadequate to spur improvements in education, two prominent groups are laying plans to develop a national examination that all students would take.

Members of President Bush's Education Policy Advisory Committee this month are considering a proposal to convene a panel of experts to draw up examinations that could be put in place "within the next few years."

And the National Center on Education and the Economy, which in June issued a report calling for all students to attain a national standard based on a series of assessments, is exploring ways to follow up on that recommendation.

Although the proposals are being developed separately, both are aimed at raising student achievement by requiring all students to demonstrate competency. If they are implemented, said Paul H. O'Neill, chairman of the President's panel, schools will have better information than they do now about where to place resources to make improvements.

"My own view," said Mr. O'Neill, chief executive officer of the Aluminum Company of America, "is that we need a test that can be given to individual children, the results of which can be given to the child and teacher to help better inform all parties how the child is gaining the competencies necessary to be a participating citizen."

"We have some good tests that tell us something," he added, "but they don't tell us in a way that would allow us to make specific interventions in the process to do something. They tell us we're not doing very well; they don't suggest why not."

In addition, said Lauren B. Resnick, a trustee of the center on education and the economy, a properly developed examination system would "ratchet the system up" by encouraging schools to focus on higher-level abilities, rather than the basic skills current tests measure.

"We can't continue with the kinds of tests that are driving the American system," she said. "The goals today for schools are not the goals of 40 or 50 years ago, yet we have the tools of 40 or 50 years ago."

But some testing critics and education officials warn that a national examination could exert undue influence on schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, in a letter to Mr. O'Neill, said an examination "administered, controlled, or directed by the federal government would be a mistake."

"Not only would such a program open the door to a new and dangerous level of political influence," Mr. Cavazos wrote, "it would alter two centuries of tradition regarding the respective roles of the federal and state governments in education."

Some state officials, moreover, suggest that a national test would be a step backward at a time when states and districts are developing new and better methods of measuring student abilities.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., a member of the President's panel, responded that the national interest in gathering data about student achievement may override states' imperatives, much as the national interest in school desegregation overrode claims that "states' rights" allowed segregated schools.

In the 1950's and 60's, he said, "states strongly resisted the national imperative; they wanted to be free to do it their own way. This is, albeit more benign and innocent, another version of the states-rights argument."

'A Missing Piece'

The President's advisory committee on education policy, a 24-member panel of business leaders, educators, and public officials, first broached the idea of a national test in January, when it recommended that every student in grades 4, 8, and 12 be tested in five key subject areas. (See Education Week, Jan. 17, 1990.)

The panel revisited the issue in July, according to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a committee member, when it considered ways to measure progress toward the national education goals set by Mr. Bush and the nation's governors.

"We're not going to figure out whether the national goals are met unless there is some form of national assessment," Mr. Shanker said.

An ad hoc subcommittee, which met on the issue in August, concluded that current tests are inadequate, said Mr. Finn, a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University.

"There was quite a lot of conviction in the group that the current array of instruments is not getting the job done," said Mr. Finn, who also serves as chairman of the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"The situation has to change in a significant way," he argued. "I want to get 'outcomes' information about student performance to the kid, parent, and building level. That's a necessary, currently missing piece of the puzzle."

Citing a well-publicized study that found that the overwhelming majority of elementary students performed "above average" on standardized achievement tests, Mr. Finn added that current tests often provide too rosy an assessment of children's abilities.

At the same time, he said, the NAEP program, the only current national assessment of its kind, is unable to link national goals for performance with the achievement of individual students.

"What good does it do to persuade the country that the goals are worth striving for," he asked, "if there is no way to know how your kid, school, or school district is doing in relation to them?"

"People are coming around to the psychology," Mr. Finn added, "that the kind of educational decisions that result in changed behavior in kids occur at the individual, classroom, and building level. Information at the state level is much too distant to alter Bobby's behavior vis-a-vis his science homework."

In addition, said Mr. O'Neill, current tests are too fragmented to allow schools and districts to know whether their reforms are making a difference.

"In every hamlet in the country, people are running around with ideas," the advisory-panel chairman said. "But in the absence of more specific information, every idea on the planet is being tried, whether it makes any sense or not. We're not dealing systematically with things that are holding us back."

But Edward D. Roeber, director of the Michigan Education Assessment Program, called a new national test a "quick and dirty approach" that was unlikely to result in improved schools.

"It amazes me that business officials are proposing education solutions they wouldn't use in their own companies," he said. "They wouldn't evaluate a car coming off the assembly lines by seeing if it has all four wheels intact. They've learned from the Japanese that the fit, finish, and feel of a car is what sells it. That's much more complex.''

Spending Money

To develop a new national examination, Mr. Shanker--who did not attend the August meeting--proposed in a memorandum that the President's advisory committee ask Mr. Bush to appoint a panel of experts in measurement and curriculum who would put together "a number of national examinations within the next few years."

Mr. Shanker suggested that the panel start with "those representing our most ambitious goals: math, science, and literacy," and urged a "national investment" of $200 million to $300 million for the effort.

The union president acknowledged that the sum would represent a considerable increase over the $20 million the federal government currently spends on NAEP, but said such additional funds were appropriate.

"If we're spending $200 billion in education, we've got to spend money to find out how we're doing," he said.

Mr. Finn said the issue of spending was a "red herring."

"This is the only aspect of the entire education budget of the nation," he said, "where people regard $50 million to $100 million as an astonishing sum."

"Spending on elementary and secondary education is about $210 billion," Mr. Finn added. "One percent of that is $2 billion. I don't regard 1 percent for feedback on outcomes an unreasonable share. But if you looked at anybody and said, 'We should spend $2 billion for testing,' he would say you should have your head examined."

Mr. O'Neill added that the proposed new examination might in fact save money by replacing some existing tests.

"There's a lot of testing going on that doesn't have utility," he said. "A good test may be free--there may be a reduction in the cost of testing."

He also suggested that any proposed national examination be voluntary, and that states and districts have the option to choose whether to participate.

"It's a mistaken notion to see testing as a federal issue," Mr. O'Neill said. "It's a local issue. But if there were a good test that 90 percent of the experts said would do the job, would people adopt it or not? I think they would."

Linking Tests

Mr. Finn suggested that a new testing system would not necessarily take the form of a completely new examination. One lower-cost alternative, he said, would be to statistically link existing state tests with a national test, such as NAEP.

Such a procedure would enable states to compare their results with those of the nation and other states, without going through the costly and burdensome step of administering a new test.

But David W. Hornbeck, a former state superintendent of education in Maryland, argued in a paper prepared for a conference on the issue this week that such links might be barred by the 1988 legislation that reauthorized NAEP, a Congressionally mandated program that tests a national sample of students in several subjects. That law, Mr. Hornbeck noted, prohibited NAEP results from being used to rank or compare schools or school districts.

In addition, cautioned Ramsay W. Selden, director of the state education-assessment center at the Council of Chief State School Officers, linking different tests poses technical problems. Statisticians must ensure that the tests measure the same content and have the same level of difficulty, he said.

Such problems doomed an attempt in the 1970's to link tests to evaluate federal compensatory-education programs, added Walter M. Haney, senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy at Boston College.

"We are not prepared to say that [linking] is the solution," Mr. Selden said. "The word is still out on that."

Sending a Message

The plan by the National Center on Education and the Economy, meanwhile, is pursuing a separate tack.

Based on the recommendations of a report issued in June by its Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, the Rochester, N.Y.-based research and policy center is developing a plan to create a "certificate of initial mastery" that students should acquire.

In the report, the panel proposed, among other recommendations, that a national standard for educational performance be set and that students at about age 16 be required to demonstrate, on a series of performance-based assessments, that they have met the standard. Those who did would be awarded a "certificate of initial mastery" and be eligible for employment or further education and training. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

Such a system would encourage all students to work harder in school by sending a message that the work they do matters, according to Ms. Resnick, who is director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The current system in America is strongly organized not to convey that message, except to that small percentage who enter secondary school knowing that they want to go to a competitive college," she said.

"For everybody else, by and large, the specifics of what you do don't matter," Ms. Resnick continued. "If you accumulate Carnegie units, as long as they have the right labels, you can go to college."

"It's even worse for the non-college-bound," she added. "Nobody ever asks to see your transcript. The only thing that matters is a diploma, and that you can get from time in your seat."

Ms. Resnick acknowledged that the results from the assessments could be used to hold schools accountable for student performance. But, she said, if they are developed properly, they could accomplish what accountability is supposed to achieve--improvements in schooling.

"Rather than fighting the accountability movement, we want to join it, but on terms that ratchet the system up," she said. "Putting accountability measures on that keep showing we are not doing what we want, but that do nothing to give schools the tools they need, is not going to get us where we want to go."

If the center on education and the economy succeeds in carrying out its plans, at least one prominent critic of an earlier attempt at a national examination would support it.

Paul G. LeMahieu, who earlier this year conducted a highly visible protest against a plan to expand NAEP, observed that, unlike the current national assessment, the assessments recommended in the center's report would include student portfolios, performances, and projects.

"That's the kind of direction I envision," said Mr. LeMahieu, director of the division of research, evaluation, and test development for the Pittsburgh public schools.

Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 1, 14

Published in Print: September 26, 1990, as 2 Groups Laying Plans To Develop National Exams
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories