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Reading NAEP Trend Line Could Be Severed

By Sean Cavanagh — May 31, 2007 4 min read
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Is the end near for the trend?

That’s the question surrounding the National Assessment of Educational Progress on reading, as the board that oversees the heavily scrutinized test faces a significant decision over whether to break the trend line that allows for comparisons of student scores over time.

In 2009, students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades are scheduled to take a new version of the reading NAEP, one that will place greater emphasis on understanding different types of written texts, from passages in novels to newspaper stories to informational documents, such as bus schedules or tax forms.

When new versions of NAEP tests are crafted, the National Assessment Governing Board‘s general practice has been to break the trend line, or the chart showing how well students have done on the exams over time, and begin a new one. In reading, the current trend line extends back to 1992, allowing the public to examine student progress in that subject with a common yardstick over that period.

Breaking the trend line is never popular among followers of NAEP who want to be able to compare test scores over extended periods. But this potential disruption in the trend would come at an especially inopportune time. Educators and policymakers are attempting to gauge student progress in reading under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in 2002, and NAEP offers perhaps the most objective means of making that determination. All states must participate in NAEP reading at the 4th and 8th grade level to receive federal Title I funds.

Bad Timing

The No Child Left Behind law “is a strong factor. It argues for not breaking the trend,” said John Q. Easton, a governing board member. “It’s a bad time to start all over again.”

Yet reliable options for linking the two sets of test results may be limited. At its quarterly meeting in Boston last month, board members heard a number of options for preserving the trend line. Two involve building a “bridge” between the old and new tests, a process to allow federal officials to compare student performance on both exams—possibly by giving them some of the same questions from the existing exam on the new test.

Another option would be to create “overlapping” trend lines. That would involve giving two different reading tests—the current one and a new one—to two different sets of students in one year: 2009. That approach would allow the current trend line to continue through 2009, but begin a new trend from 2009 forward.

The overlapping approach is favored by an advisory committee of state testing experts from the Council of Chief State School Officers, which wrote a letter on May 15 to the governing board in support of that strategy. The overlapping method would establish a new trend line, and that’s appropriate, said Teresa Siskind, the deputy superintendent for curriculum and assessment for the South Carolina education department, who serves on the CCSSO committee.

The changes to the reading NAEP are “fairly dramatic,” she said, and putting out scores from the two different exams on the same scale would give the public the mistaken impression that the two results are comparable.

“Our main concern is that the message used is the most legitimate,” Ms. Siskind said. Overlapping trend lines “give a more accurate portrayal.”

Another member of the chiefs’ committee, Wes Bruce, said attempting to preserve the same trend line would amount to equating “two things that are not equal.”

“We want to be able to report [scores]. It’s important to see if we’ve made progress,” said Mr. Bruce, Indiana’s assistant superintendent for assessment. At the same time, he said he does not believe the governing board should “force a relationship” in order to preserve a trend line and make it easier to compare scores over time.

Federal officials do not know if the new reading test would be harder or easier than the current one, according to Mary Crovo, the deputy executive director of the governing board. That can only be determined after they study how well students do on the new exam, she said.

The reading and math NAEP in the 4th and 8th grades allow for state-by-state comparisons of student progress in those subjects, as well as trends in national scores.

12th Grade Preparedness

Meanwhile, the governing board has set up a special advisory panel to help it plan research and validity studies that will allow NAEP to report on 12th graders’ preparation for college and the workforce, a skill that is often difficult to measure.

Federal officials are scheduled to begin collecting information about college and career readiness from 12th graders taking the reading and math NAEP in 2009. The committee is responsible for suggesting and planning specific studies that could be used to gauge students’ preparation for different fields—from taking college courses without remedial help to joining the military.

The six members of the committee are: John Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; David T. Conley, professor of education at the University of Oregon, in Eugene; Michael T. Kane, director of research for the National Conference of Bar Examiners, in Madison, Wis.; Michael W. Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University; and Robert J. Mislevy, professor of measurement, statistics, and evaluation at the University of Maryland College Park.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Reading NEAP Trend Line Could Be Severed

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