Two groups of reading and assessment experts offered divergent proposals last week for retooling the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading. One pushes for improvements to the current framework that guides what is on the test, while the other recommends a dramatic shift in how students’ proficiency in the subject is gauged.
In presentations here to a committee of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, the groups outlined in competing issues papers the types of changes they believe are necessary to bring the test into better alignment with the latest research in the field, as well as state standards.
The governing board hired a contractor last month to design the reading framework that will guide development of test questions, beginning with its 2007 administration. For the first time, the contract does not require that future tests yield results comparable with those on previous NAEP exams.
In its paper, the contractor, the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, suggested that the board could build on the existing framework while constructing questions that better reflect the types of reading tasks children tackle each day, such as technology-based text and graphical presentations. The test should also consider the varied reading experiences and background knowledge of all test-takers and scale back the length and complexity of some reading passages, according to Terry Sallinger, a chief scientist with AIR.
The opposing paper, by the Washington-based Education Leaders Council, a national network of state and local officials, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research and school reform organization led by former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr., argues that the current framework gauges students’ reading-comprehension skills at a more “superficial level” than state tests, and it recommends “changes in the way reading/literacy is defined and measured” by the test.
The ELC and the Fordham Foundation suggest that NAEP, which broadly assesses reading comprehension and critical-thinking skills, require more specific tasks of students, such as analyzing arguments or making deductions.
The test should also include a more explicit check of students’ vocabulary knowledge and reading fluency, they say, as well as passages that are better aligned to the grade levels of the students by using readability formulas. Questions that ask for students’ opinions should be eliminated, the paper maintains.
In addition, that proposal urges the board to align the test more closely with state standards and assessments in the subject to allow states to monitor progress, as will be required under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.
But such wholesale changes could make it difficult, or impossible, to compare student performance on the new test with results from previous years, a trend many experts and policymakers look to as a key indicator of whether achievement is improving.
No More Consensus?
NAGB set a precedent in commissioning two sets of literature reviews and issue papers, an acknowledgment of the intense debate in the field over how children learn to read and to comprehend text, and how proficiency is best assessed.
“The board believes it is important to consider different points of view on reading assessment,” Roy Truby, the longtime executive director of the governing board, said before he retired last month. “Then, the two issues papers will help the board frame the issues it wants to be considered in deciding how NAEP will test reading comprehension in the future.”
In 1990, the committee charged with writing the current framework was asked only to reach a consensus among researchers and educators in the field, said Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation, who was then a member of the governing board.
“The word ‘science’ never appeared in 1990 in any of the statutory backdrop,” he said at the meeting last week. “Consensus was the goal, not research. We know a whole lot more about reading ... and the science [of reading] now.”
AIR will assemble several committees over the coming months to draft the new framework. The governing board will also seek input from scholars, educators, and the public.
A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Board Plunges into Thorny Issue Of Revising NAEP Reading Outline