Proposed Reading, Math Tests To Look Like NAEP

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An independent panel has at last supplied President Clinton with the blueprint for the national tests he first envisioned more than a year ago. But given the political climate in Congress, it could prove to be a moot exercise.

Charged by Congress last fall with essentially redoing the work of a group assembled by the Department of Education, the National Assessment Governing Board has done what the Clinton administration asked: designed voluntary new tests of 4th grade reading and 8th grade math that closely resemble the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress.

James E. Ellingson

But the tests face heavy opposition in Congress, whose members would have to approve the exams. If they get a green light, the tests could be offered in March 2001, the governing board has said.

It was no stretch for the governing board to keep to the national assessment's framework because, until recently, the board's sole mission was to set policy for NAEP. Administered since 1969, the national assessment is the only ongoing, representative survey of student performance in a variety of academic subjects.

AEP cannot by law produce results for individual students, but individual scores are a central feature of Mr. Clinton's proposed tests. Under his plan, students who received results from the new national tests would also be able to predict how they would have performed on NAEP in terms of its achievement levels: "basic," "proficient," and "advanced."

Aping NAEP

The design that the governing board members settled on at their quarterly meeting in Seattle March 5-7 is to be used by the testing contractors to write the items for the proposed tests.

For both tests, the board charted general outlines of what the exams should look like. The board has yet to review potential test items or to deal with such thorny issues as how students with disabilities or those with limited proficiency in English are to be accommodated on the tests.

The reading and math tests are to cover the same content as the analogous NAEP tests and to contain mostly multiple-choice and other machine-scored items, although there would be some items that called for students to write their own responses.

In resolving the design of the proposed tests, the board departed from the framework of the national assessment only when absolutely necessary.

"Any time you change one specification, you don't have this kind of [statistical] link across the two tests," said James E. Ellingson, the chairman of the governing board's committee that worked on the math specifications.

For instance, because of the sampling technique used, students taking the NAEP test in math or reading take only about one-fourth of the entire assessment and spend only about 45 or 50 minutes doing so. But the new reading and math tests are each to be given in two 45-minute sessions in a single day.

"We are feeling really good this test will be able to link to NAEP, and we will be able to use the high standards of the NAEP achievement levels," said Mr. Ellingson, a retired elementary school teacher from Moorhead, Minn.

Calculators OK

The issue of whether--and how--to allow 8th graders to use hand-held calculators on the math test have been among the most troublesome. The board decided to mimic closely the way in which their use is permitted on the national assessment. All students taking the NAEP math test are provided with the same kind of calculator for use on some sections.

The board wants students taking the new national test to use calculators on the same proportion of items as they do on NAEP now--about one-third of the test.

Board members also want students taking the proposed test to have access to the same kind of basic calculator. They have asked the test contractor to come up with a plan for calculator access and use.

The board is also considering using gridded, open-response items, which ask students to draw bubble-in answers on a grid in the test booklet. They will be used on NAEP for the first time in 2000, and if they work out well could appear on the new national math test.

For the reading test, the board has yet to decide about including "intertextual" items, in which students are asked questions based on their reading of two passages. The items are used now on the 8th and 12th grade NAEP but not at the 4th grade level, because of time constraints.

Board members want to see first how well the items work in field-testing. They're desirable "because they measure advanced reading techniques at the 4th grade," said Marilyn A. Whirry, a California English teacher who chaired the governing board's reading-test committee.

Unlike the reading-test specifications drawn up last summer under the auspices of the Education Department, there would be no items that ask students "personal" questions, such as how a reading passage relates to their own lives, Ms. Whirry said.

Political Fate Unclear

The board's testing plan could come to naught, though. Just last month, the House tried to make sure that no test would be created without its input by approving a bill that said Congress must explicitly authorize any test development beyond Sept. 30, the end of the current federal fiscal year. The Senate has yet to act. ("To Administration's Dismay, House Passes Test Bill," Feb. 11, 1998.)

Whatever the outcome, the governing board's time was not wasted, Ms. Whirry said. "If nothing ever happens with the [new national tests], we're so much more knowledgeable about the act of reading, about the NAEP framework, and about where we have to go to make it all better."

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