A sample of students in five urban districts—Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York City—were scheduled to take part in a federal testing program this week, as a result of a little-noticed provision in the fiscal 2002 budget Congress approved.
The Council of the Great City Schools, a membership group representing nearly 60 of the nation’s large urban school systems, pushed for the money to use the National Assessment of Educational Progress to compare results from city to city on a trial basis.
“With all of the testing that is now required, there is still nothing that allows the major cities to benchmark themselves against one another to see what reforms are working and what ones aren’t,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the council, based in Washington. “The urban trial NAEP allows us to see whether or not that kind of benchmarking is feasible.”
NAEP, often called “the nation’s report card,” is a congressionally mandated program that provides the best source of comparable information about student achievement in a number of subjects at the national and state levels.
Under the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed by President Bush this month, NAEP assessments in reading and mathematics will be given to a representative sample of students in grades 4 and 8 in every state every other year, beginning in 2003. The federal government will pick up the tab for administering and scoring the assessments.
But while districts have had the option of testing enough of their students to generate district-level scores since 1994, they have had to bear the additional cost of doing so. And the process has been so cumbersome and expensive that few districts have taken advantage of it.
‘A Courageous Act’
The $2.5 million included in the appropriations legislation for a “trial urban assessment” in 2002 covered the cost of testing a sample of 4th and 8th graders in reading and writing in each of the participating cities. The state NAEP was to be administered at the same time.
For each subject and grade, the sample size includes 1,300 to 1,800 students per city, or up to 81 schools in grade 4 and 79 schools in grade 8, compared with about 100 schools and 2,500 students in a state sample. The idea is to yield accuracy comparable to a state sample. The money covers the administration, scoring, analysis, and reporting of results, as well as an evaluation to help determine whether an urban-level NAEP should be pursued on an ongoing basis.
“We consider inclusion in the study to be a big positive for the Atlanta public schools,” said Beverly L. Hall, the superintendent of the 56,000-student system. “As a data-driven system, we are confident that the results of this study will provide solid information to help drive our reform initiatives.”
Mr. Casserly originally made his request for an urban-level NAEP at the November 2000 meeting of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. The council asked the governing board to support its request for funding from Congress."We were very supportive of it,” said Mark S. Musick, the chairman of the board and the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.
More Urban Data
“This is a courageous act by the urban schools. It’s a sea change,” he said. “We know their results aren’t likely to be great, but the fact that the schools want to be measured, and want to have this as a benchmark, a baseline, is a really good sign.”
The proposal, which had the support of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the former superintendent of the Houston schools, was sponsored by Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., in the House. The Senate bill did not provide additional funding, but encouraged the Education Department to consider conducting a trial urban assessment with available funds.
“For just a little bit of effort and expense, we ought to have considerably more data on the performance of school districts that the nation is very interested in,” said Mr. Casserly.
“For anybody who continues to wonder whether urban schools are interested in being transparent and accountable,” he added, “I hope this will contribute to a shattering of that image.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Budget Makes NAEP Testing Possible for 5 Urban Districts