Assessment

Civics Test May Be Delayed To Abet Bush Plan

By Lynn Olson — June 20, 2001 4 min read
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Burning to find out how much U.S. students know about civics? You may have to wait a few more years. A national test in that subject, originally scheduled for 2003, may be delayed until 2005 in order to help prepare for some of the proposed testing under President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan.

Under the Bush proposal, now being debated on Capitol Hill, the National Assessment of Educational Progress would have to be administered to a representative sample of 4th and 8th graders in reading and mathematics in every state every year.

The federal testing program currently measures national and state progress in reading and math on a four-year cycle, with states volunteering to participate. Mr. Bush has proposed more frequent testing in those subjects in part to provide an external check on state testing programs.

To move to the more ambitious proposed schedule beginning in 2003, the governing board that oversees the national assessment has been preparing for major changes, many of which would be field-tested next year. (“NAEP Board Begins Preparing For Changes,” May 23, 2001.)

The board’s committee on standards, design, and methodology met here June 8 to review some of those plans, which must be approved by the full board at a meeting scheduled in Houston later this month. The recommendation to delay the civics test, while the most notable of the changes, suggests the pressures Mr. Bush’s proposal is putting on the national testing program.

“It is a matter of bringing things together so that the base year of 2003 for ‘No Child Left Behind’ is well planned, well thought out, and works as well as it can,” said Roy Truby, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board.

No Money in the Bank

The civics assessment was last given in 1998, after a 10-year hiatus. Two-thirds of the test-takers satisfied the “basic” standards. Only 20 percent of the students who took the test in civics reached the “proficient” level, while a mere 2 percent of 4th and 8th graders and 4 percent of 12th graders were “advanced.” (“Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students,” Nov. 24, 1999.)

At its meeting this month, the NAGB committee urged delaying the next administration of the civics test, in part, because of the logistics of all the other changes in the assessment that must be completed over the coming year. But the program is also feeling squeezed for cash to make the modifications on a tight timeline.

Such a move would not sit well with civics education advocates. “We have always been concerned that the 10-year schedule for the testing of civics does not provide an accurate measurement of how our nation is doing in educating the next generation in government and civics,” said Ted McConnell, the director of the Campaign To Promote Civic Education, based in Washington. “An extension to a longer testing period would cause the civic education community great concern.”

President Bush has proposed increasing the assessment’s current $40 million budget by an additional $69 million in fiscal 2002 to finance the planned expansion in reading and math. But the Department of Education has not yet allocated about $5 million NAGB estimates is needed in fiscal 2001 to help prepare for the field test.

Mark D. Musick

“The discussions with the department have been cooperative,” said Mark D. Musick, the chairman of NAGB. But, he added, “we don’t have any money in the bank at the moment.”

Lindsey Kozberg, the chief spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said the department is currently reviewing the fiscal 2001 budget and trying to identify funds that could be reallocated to help prepare for the field test and other department priorities.

During the meeting here June 8, members of the governing board heard plans for a massive field test of new assessment items and procedures that would have to occur in 2002 to prepare for the modifications Congress is now considering. National and state surveys in reading and writing also must be given next year.

The field test, of approximately 161,000 students, would standardize testing time across subjects into 25-minute blocks; pilot-test new items for the 2003 tests in reading and math; permit students to identify themselves as members of more than one race or ethnic group; and prepare for reporting reading and math results in six months.

One purpose of the field test is to ensure that the changes scheduled for 2003 will not affect the advanced, proficient, basic, and “below basic” achievement levels that NAGB uses to report results.

Measuring Gaps

One of the biggest concerns raised at the this month’s meeting was how NAEP can more accurately report gaps in achievement between students of different racial, ethnic, or income groups. Under the Bush plan, states would be financially rewarded or penalized for their progress in closing such achievement gaps, as measured on state tests, but confirmed by NAEP.

To improve the national assessment’s ability to gauge performance gaps at the state level will require increasing the sample size and writing more test items that measure the performance of students in the basic and below-basic categories. In one-third of the states, for example, the sample size is too small to yield reliable estimates about the performance of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, a common yardstick of poverty.

Edward H. Haertel

Edward H. Haertel, the chairman of the NAGB committee and a professor of education at Stanford University, cautioned that “measuring gaps is still very difficult, and measuring changes in gaps is even more difficult.”

Many of the changes now being contemplated for NAEP were originally recommended by the governing board as part of a proposed redesign. With the program receiving level financing for the past four years, most of those changes have not been possible until now.

The president’s testing plan “has proven to be an opportunity to do some things that are really good for the assessment in the long term,” Mr. Haertel said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Civics Test May Be Delayed To Abet Bush Plan

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