Test-Weary Schools Balk at NAEP

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Faced with a backlash from educators who say students spend too much time taking tests, seven states have failed to live up to their promises to take part in the federal assessment program this year, and six others may also have to drop out.

Although the National Center for Education Statistics announced last year that 48 states planned to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2000, officials in at least seven of those states haven't been able to recruit enough schools to give the 45-minute exams in science and math.

Despite earlier commitments, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington have dropped out of NAEP's state-by-state testing program because of lack of interest from local schools. In addition, the participation of Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Oregon, and Wisconsin is considered "at risk" because the number of schools planning to give the tests is small enough to endanger their samples if a few schools renege on their commitments.

The tepid response to this year's NAEP comes despite concerted efforts on the part of federal officials to encourage states to sign up.

"We're having a tough time," said Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of assessment for the NCES. "We have done a lot more to assist the states in recruiting [participants]. Even though we've done that, it's gotten very, very difficult."

The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy, agreed last year to double the window of time available to administer the federally sponsored test to allow more flexibility for states that were struggling to get local schools' cooperation. ("Board Offers States More Opportunity To Give NAEP," Dec. 1, 1999.)

Only two states, Alaska and South Dakota, never agreed to seek participants for this year's exams.

This year, NAEP will measure the mathematical skills and science knowledge of 4th graders and 8th graders. NAEP will also test 4th graders' reading skills, but it won't collect state-by-state results. Testing began Jan. 31 and will continue until Feb. 25.

Ms. Carr and others say NAEP's problems are ironic. When the federal program started collecting state-by-state results in 1990s, it was the first major testing program to set achievement levels and measure students against them. Now, 49 states have set academic standards, and all but Iowa and Nebraska have testing programs designed to measure student success in meeting them.

William Moloney

"In a curious way, NAEP has become a victim of its own success," said William J. Moloney, Colorado's commissioner of education and a former member of the assessment governing board.

States often have little recourse if a district refuses to take part in the federal program, which is voluntary. Local officials typically back out in an effort to reduce the time students are taking tests, or to avoid scheduling conflicts.

Because NAEP collects separate samples for national and state-by-state results, the national snapshot of student performance will not be affected by states' inability to provide an statistically accurate sample of their own populations. Federal officials created a nationally representative sample of the nation's students in a process separate from the state-based testing program.

Tests Take Time

For state-by-state results, a NAEP contractor selects schools in every participating state that mirror its demographic makeup. Under the governing board's rules, 70 percent of the 200 to 250 schools selected for each state must agree to give the assessment. A school must send a staff person for a day of training; that person also must spend about two days managing the testing. About 30 students leave their classrooms for an average of an hour and a half of testing, according to the center for education statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

The schools receive no compensation for their work.

To ensure accuracy, the governing board requires that the tests be taken at about the same time of the year.

In six states, officials recruited a few more than the minimum of schools needed. But if some of the schools drop out, the state's scores would be invalidated, according to briefing documents the statistics center prepared for the governing board.

If NAEP ends up with 41 state participants, it will be disappointing for assessment officials, but still about an average number for recent years. In 1998, 37 states took the reading exam, and 42 took the writing test. In 1996, 45 states took the math and science tests.

Conflict in Florida

In Florida, schools declined to give this year's NAEP tests because the assessment period falls exactly when the state is giving the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, according to JoAnn Carrin, the deputy communications director for the state education department.

This month and next, Florida 8th graders will sit for almost eight hours of state testing, and 4th graders will be undergo almost seven hours.

"It just was not feasible to do both at the same time," Ms. Carrin said. Some Florida schools will be taking the math and science tests for the national sample this year, she added.

Florida's situation is common, Ms. Carr of the NCES said. Sixteen states give their own tests between January and March. Four states are taking advantage of the extra time offered to give NAEP tests because their own testing programs coincided with the federal timetable, Ms. Carr said.

In Colorado, the state's largest school district decided to skip NAEP this year because educators are already complaining about the amount of time given to the state testing program.

"The plate is overflowing," said C. Rodney Killian, the assessment director for the 89,000-student Jefferson County district in the Denver suburbs.

In such a situation, NAEP is the first thing to be dropped, state and local officials say. Not only is it voluntary, it also doesn't deliver student, school, or even districtwide scores.

"It's just not on their radar screen," Mr. Moloney, Colorado's education commissioner, said of local educators. "To local people, there is not a connection because nothing comes back to the district."

This year, the NCES made a particular effort to recruit states, with the goal of getting all of them into the state program. When federal officials celebrated commitments from 48 states, they didn't expect the complications that have driven down interest.

Mark D. Musick

"I would be more concerned if we were having states that weren't participating for reasons that weren't legitimate," said Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the NAEP governing board and the president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Mr. Musick said that because the states started withdrawing late in the process, the governing board could do little other than to expand the period for testing. The board will discuss possible solutions—such as changing the dates when NAEP gives its test—at its meeting next month in Hawaii.

"You can't necessarily deal with it when it bites you the first time," Mr. Musick said. "Given one or two years, we'll be able to respond to them."

Vol. 19, Issue 23, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: February 16, 2000, as Test-Weary Schools Balk at NAEP
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