Assessment

Governing Board Revamps Mathematics NAEP for 12th Graders

By Sean Cavanagh — August 07, 2006 4 min read

The board that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress has revised the blueprint for the 12th grade mathematics version of the influential exam, in an attempt to make the test better reflect the skills that students need for college and highly skilled jobs.

The changes, approved Aug. 4, are expected to make the math test more challenging in some areas, through the addition of more-complex algebraic concepts, trigonometry, and a stronger emphasis on mathematical reasoning and problem-solving, officials associated with the board say. Those revisions could also shape individual states’ math standards, which are often influenced by the content of the NAEP frameworks.

The National Assessment Governing Board, the independent entity that directs NAEP, unanimously agreed to make the changes at its quarterly meeting here. The board has spent about two years on the project.

“What we’re doing here is not unique to NAEP. It is what society is demanding,” said Sharif M. Shakrani, a professor of psychometric testing at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who consulted on changes to the framework. “We need to judge what students know and where they are weak.”

The 12th grade math test is given to a random sample of public and private school students around the country. It was most recently given to about 9,000 students in 2005. States are required to participate in NAEP in reading and math at the 4th and 8th grade levels, which provides the basis for state-by-state comparisons of test scores. There is currently no such requirement for the 12th grade NAEP, though President Bush has proposed one.

The 12th grade NAEP test was last revised for the exam given in 2005. The changes in math content for that assessment were significant enough to force a break in the “trend line,” or the ability to compare results from that test with those on previous exams. The revisions on the 2009 exam will break the trend line again.

Just How Rigorous?

To assuage concerns about the loss of the trend line, Mary Crovo, the deputy executive director of the governing board, said it was possible that federal officials would be able to create a “bridge study” that allows for some kind of comparison between the 2009 results and earlier scores.

In its efforts to revamp the 12th grade math test, the governing board contracted in September 2004 with Achieve, a Washington-based policy organization founded by the nation’s governors and business leaders to push for higher state academic standards. The board used Achieve’s “American Diploma Project Benchmarks,” a document that seeks to identify the skills that high school graduates need for success in college and the workplace, as a resource in overhauling the NAEP framework.

NAEP frameworks and tests periodically draw criticism from experts in various content areas, and the revised math blueprint was no exception, board members and staff noted. Some college mathematicians have complained that the 12th grade document is still not academically rigorous enough, Ms. Crovo said.

One organization that voiced objections was the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which in May wrote a letter to the governing board describing the math terminology used in an earlier draft of the framework as vague. “[It] appears that these objectives, in their entirety, point in the wrong direction,” Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at Fordham, wrote to the board.

But officials from some state education departments, who have been gradually trying to raise their demands on students in math, have voiced the opposite concern, Ms. Crovo told the board. Their message was, “How are our students going to fare [on the NAEP] when we’re not quite there yet?” she said.

Currently, the 12th grade NAEP includes a significant amount of content from Algebra 1—a course many students take at the 8th or 9th grade level—and fairly basic Algebra 2, Mr. Shakrani said. The new version will include more content for Algebra 2, material that many observers say students need to prepare for college-level math. Students will be asked to work with more nonlinear functions, and generally, do more in-depth problem-solving, he added.

“It will be tougher,” said governing board member Sheila Ford, after the framework was approved. She believes the framework will lead states to require more rigorous math curricula and standards. “We’re going to have to see how well students can perform on it,” she said. “Hopefully, it will move the conversation.”

Mr. Shakrani noted, however, that the revised math NAEP will still include items ranging from middle school math to far more difficult concepts. The wide scope of content is necessary, he said, in order to provide school and testing officials with a precise knowledge of where both low- and high-performing students’ math knowledge is falling short.

“NAEP is more encompassing” than many tests, Mr. Shakrani said. ”It covers some of the less rigorous material; it covers some of the more rigorous material.”

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