Accountability Opinion

Why Not Strengthen the NAEP as a Tool for Seeing Trends?

By Deborah Meier — May 07, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I think it’s unlikely that the fans of mayoral control are open to persuasion. But thanks, Diane, for relentlessly pursuing them. We’re in for lots of nonsense in the name of reform.

Arne Duncan is planning a contest for a new name to replace the unpopular No Child Left Behind. It’s the name, apparently, that he sees as the problem. Actually, it’s the only thing I like about the bill! Meanwhile Sharpton and Klein and Co. (EEP) are planning a rally in D.C. to end poverty (hurrah), by…"closing the testing gap.” And, careless reporters (see May 5th AP story by Libby Quaid) claim that NCLB has had success at doing so.

It was interesting also to read James Forman Jr. in the May-June issue of Boston Review (a publication worth getting). He explores the “gap” between those who want to focus just on schools to create equity (EEP) and those who see health and income gaps as part of the problem (Broader Bolder). But the heart of the article is about KIPP. He connects their work to that of CPESS and “The Power of Their Ideas”! The coupling was intriguing (and flattering) and relates to the theme of this letter: the confusing landscape of reform, reformers, and their messages!

The “gap focus” probably accounts for the renewed interest in early-childhood education. But, alas, it usually translates into just starting traditional schooling at an ever earlier age. Sunday’s NY Times Magazine had a piece (“Kindergarten Cram” by Peggy Orenstein) about what’s happening to our kindergartens—and I might add—to nursery schools and home life, too! And she’s talking about the elites! It’s not a new subject—David Elkind wrote “The Hurried Child” 20 years ago. We’re obsessed, pressing children at younger and younger ages in the name of raising standards, and now closing the achievement gap! So it was nice to read Orenstein’s sensible comments about the topic, based on a very important study done by Joan Almon and Ed Miller at D.C.’s Alliance for Childhood. Read it—and weep.

Alarm over an endless list of recurrent crises—some real and some questionable—is the style of the day. Unfortunately, being impatient is bad for child-rearing, and bad for society-rearing also—as Elkind reminded us. The latest issue of Educational Horizons (the magazine of Pi Lambda Theta) has a short piece questioning the significance of another crisis: the U.S. “lag” in TIMSS international math scores and one on how deciding to focus on four-year high school graduation rates has created a heightened “crisis.”

False alarmism is as dangerous as false complacency, I’m discovering. (Maybe it’s just my age?) Like red alerts, false alarms lose their sting.

I thought of you last week, Diane, at the Education Writers Association sessions in D.C. The one I participated in was largely focused on national standards. I found myself resisting the PR-induced consensus that is being invented. It’s an area where you and I have historically disagreed, but I suspect you’re a little suspicious, too.

The Constitution always requires reinterpretation and sometimes even amendment. But I’m an “originalist” in legislating school reform. The odds of harmful interference are just too great. And the thinning out of all local institutions is worrisome.

Of course, I have supported some shifts toward centralized decision-making re. schooling. Segregation was a cause important enough to err on the side of state and federal intervention. So was unequal funding for low-income schools. But much as the Boston integrators are among my heroes, the impact of their sweeping mandates—eliminating all neighborhood schools—did not turn out as they hoped. There are virtually no integrated schools in Boston today. In so far as NCLB was an equity law, the same might be said of it. In neither case did we pay much heed to those on the ground in considering how it might play out. I feel the same about national standards. We may unwisely rush into this, under the battle cry of “crisis” and end up reproducing the worst of NCLB.

I think if we do not want or believe it necessary to dumb down the best of schooling in the interest of equalizing it—there are wiser alternatives. I’d like to roll out a few. For starters:

1. We could strengthen the NAEP—as a tool that helps us see trends; that notes significant differences between states, regions, and subgroups; and that can put the spotlight on particularly interesting items that deserve closer attention. Especially re. literacy where, post-4th grade, there is perhaps 99 percent agreement defining it. We could go back to some of the ideas that old-timer Ralph Tyler had for NAEP —interviews, focus groups, projects, etc. that could provide more insight than bubbled answers can. My discovery that many 3rd graders who scored poorly on reading tests would do no better if the passages and items were read aloud is, for example, worth pursuing. As was my discovery that some wrong answers suggested good reading. Such an approach, based on sampled populations and using sampled items, can avoid high stakes use while also providing richer national data. (We could require states that want federal funds to join NAEP?)

After that it gets harder, so I’m going to roll out the next four ideas next week!


P.S. Our perennial disagreement about NAEP largely regards the wisdom in setting so-called benchmarks—and the labels attached to them. Otherwise, the exams have some of the limitations of any multiple-choice standardized instrument—but not its gross high-stakes misuse as a measure of individuals.

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