Governing Board Looks to Marketing to Sell NAEP to Seniors

By Sean Cavanagh — November 23, 2004 3 min read
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Seeking to overcome “senioritis,” the board that oversees the nation’s benchmark of academic skills is studying ways to encourage 12th graders to take the tests more seriously, from forming partnerships with corporations to using celebrities in promotional pitches.

Members of the National Assessment Governing Board heard presentations last week from two consulting companies and from state testing administrators on ideas for improving the participation of high school seniors on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Engaging them is a top priority for the panel.

Those business and testing officials, speaking to a governing-board committee on Nov. 18, suggested that increasing 12th graders’ participation would hinge partly on making sure schools and teachers also promoted the test.

Often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” NAEP provides samples of student performance at both the national and state levels, allowing policymakers and the public to gauge what students know in core subjects. But unlike many state exams, NAEP does not report individual scores for students and schools. It also does not carry the same potential penalties—or rewards—for schools or students as many state exams.

Both of those factors can make NAEP tests seem irrelevant to seniors mere months from graduation, several speakers told the committee.

“The fundamental challenge [the board] faces is making NAEP relevant in the present day,” said Barbara Davidson, the president of StandardsWork Inc., a Washington-based company hired by the board to study ways to bolster participation. Any such strategy, she said, “clearly will involve targeting each of the critical audiences and explaining why it is relevant to them.”

The lack of motivation among seniors has long been recognized as a problem by testing officials familiar with the 12th grade NAEP. The pressure to increase participation among seniors will likely increase in the future. President Bush has proposed making it mandatory for states to participate in NAEP mathematics and reading tests at that level. States now are required to take part in those tests only at the 4th and 8th grade levels; senior-year testing is voluntary.

Sparking Interest

Interest among high school seniors today seems mild, at best. A 2002 study found that NAEP participation rate among students and schools was 55 percent, compared with 76 percent for the 8th grade test. In 2004, that participation rate was nearly as low, according to preliminary data provided to governing-board members last week by the National Center for Education Statistics, the branch of the U.S. Department of Education that administers the test.

“If the decrease in the participation rate continues, we’ll reach a point where we don’t have a reliable sample of 12th graders,” said Sharif M. Shakrani, the deputy executive director of the governing board. “The results will not be a valid and reliable assessment of what 12th graders know and can do.”

The board’s committee also heard officials from Reingold Inc., another Washington-based business hired by the board to help improve NAEP participation. Officials of the marketing and communications company described how federal entities such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Park Service have formed partnerships with corporations to promote themselves to the public.

Those alliances have helped the Census Bureau make inroads at business functions and promotional events, where it could explain its survey activities, Janet Reingold, the president of the company, told the board. The national assessment could benefit from similar exposure, she said.

Cindy Simmons, the NAEP coordinator for Mississippi, said literacy efforts there had benefited from the help of such celebrities as the National Football League’s Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, both of whom are widely recognizable among students.

Connecticut’s NAEP coordinator, William Congero, said testing officials could combine efforts to appeal to students’ pride—such as staging pre-exam rallies to explain the exam’s importance—and to schools’ coffers, by offering schools monetary rewards for high participation.

“We need to reach out to students and tell them what’s in it for them,” Mr. Congero said. “Students tend to know that NAEP results don’t count.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Governing Board Looks to Marketing to Sell NAEP to Seniors


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