The panel that oversees the nation’s test of academic progress has approved new guidelines for determining whether students with disabilities and limited English skills must take part in it.
The National Assessment Governing Board voted last month to conduct a pilot of the new rules during the 2005 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.”
The move, taken at the board’s quarterly meeting, held here Aug. 5-7, was one of several changes the panel approved, including the use of a new reading framework, or guidelines for what reading content should be tested, beginning in 2009. It marks the first such change since 1992 to the reading section of NAEP, and the end of the line for the trend data from that test. States must participate in the reading and mathematics tests for grades 4 and 8.
The board also agreed to rechannel money that was originally devoted to a 12th grade foreign-language test to help pay for the possible expansion of the reading test for high school seniors in 2007.
Making that test mandatory for states is a stated goal of the Bush administration, although Congress has yet to take action on the proposal and it has drawn objections from some state officials.
“I would not expect much support in Alaska for adding another test to the current list of mandatory tests,” Roger Sampson, the state education commissioner there, wrote in a letter to the governing board, which had sought public comment on the issue. Such action, the Alaska official said, would require a “campaign to show educators and the public the value of the test.”
Meanwhile, board members moved ahead on another difficult topic at their meeting, adopting a “decision tree,” or set of criteria for determining whether students with limited English proficiency or special needs because of disabilities must take part in NAEP and can use accommodations during the exam.
Critics have long questioned whether states that have seen their NAEP scores leap from one testing cycle to the next may have benefited by excluding large numbers of such students. Currently, rules on circumstances under which students must participate vary from state to state.
“We were concerned … about both the magnitude and variability of exclusion rates across the United States,” said Charles E. Smith, the executive director of the governing board. “This won’t solve the problem, but it will draw us closer.”
Current guidelines allow states to exclude students with limited skills in English if they have not had three years of academic instruction in that language. The new guidelines replace that policy with a “decision tree,” or series of criteria that school officials would be required to use in determining whether students would participate in NAEP.
Under the new guidelines, for instance, if students were required to take their states’ regular assessments under the federal law—and they relied on accommodations allowed on NAEP then they would also have to take NAEP tests. Students who could only demonstrate subject knowledge with accommodations that were not permitted by NAEP would be freed from taking the test, the new policy says.
School officials would use a comparable set of scenarios to determine if special education students were required to take the assessment. Those decisions would be based on a number of factors, beginning with whether the students’ individualized education plans said they should participate in regular or alternative state tests.
Students with disabilities who took their state’s alternate assessments would not be required to participate in NAEP if they were deemed to be cognitively disabled under the definitions set out by the No Child Left Behind Act, according to the guidelines.
Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, called the decision tree “a very reasonable approach” and said it would help administrators make decisions about testing students with special needs more systematically.
“I’m not sure it’s a total solution, but they’ve developed a specific policy, and then we’ll work from there,” said Ms. Thurlow, whose Minneapolis organization, affiliated with the University of Minnesota, has studied the participation of students with disabilities on tests.
Measuring Across Grades
Nancy Caldwell, a vice president of Westat, the Rockville, Md., research company that performs sampling and data collection for NAEP, said her organization would work with the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics to identify which schools would take part in the 2005 pilot study of the new rules. Between 50 and 100 schools are likely to be selected, she said.
The new reading framework, meanwhile, will evaluate students’ comprehension of two types of writing: informational, such as documents; and literary, such as fiction. The revised exam will include a first-ever explicit test of vocabulary. Poetry will be measured in 4th grade, along with the 8th and 12th grades, as is the case now. (Aug. 11, 2004.)
The new reading section reflects the board’s desire to make sure the exam incorporates a research- driven approach to testing students’ mastery of the subject and a commitment to avoid any particular ideological approach, several board members said.
The new framework “does not take sides in the famous ‘reading wars,’ ” said Diane Ravitch, referring to the debate over whether phonics or whole-language teaching is more successful in helping students learn that basic skill.
In fact, the revised test “should be a model to people around the country as to the irrelevance of so much of the debate,” said Ms. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University.
In addition, the board approved plans for a revamped “cross-grade scaling” system for the 2009 NAEP reading test for 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. That new system will allow testing officials and the public to track more closely the progress of a single cohort of students. Making that change will mean that NAEP officials will have to more closely align reading-test questions between grade levels, board member Mark D. Reckase said.
President Bush in April voiced support for making state participation mandatory in the 12th grade reading and math NAEP, echoing a recommendation made by a commission formed by the governing board earlier this year. Then, in May, the administration proposed including that recommendation in its reauthorization plan of the Perkins Act, the federal law governing vocational education programs.
So far, neither the House nor the Senate bill to reauthorize the Perkins law incorporates the 12th grade NAEP plan. Susan Aspey, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the administration still supports the plan and is working with Congress to determine “the best place to get it done.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Board Adopts New Guidelines for Participation in NAEP