Department of Education officials are facing the largest breach of security in the 32-year history of the federal education testing program.
A Minnesota citizens’ group that opposes a federal presence in local schools recently posted on its Web site test questions from a booklet used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The group says it was trying to illustrate why it doesn’t want Congress to let the testing program’s scores become the standard against which state tests are compared.
Federal officials say release of excerpts from the reading and writing sections of the long-term trend test will not jeopardize the validity of the portion of NAEP that has been given regularly to U.S. students since 1969.
Even though the hallmark of the long-term trend test is that it gives the same test questions over the span of three decades, officials are confident that they can compensate for the release of a small portion of it, either by eliminating those test questions or by continuing to use them and monitoring whether student scores increase unexpectedly.
Since the long-term trend section of NAEP collects only national results and doesn’t offer rewards for high scores, students and teachers are unlikely to seek the advantage of knowing questions in advance, federal officials say.
“I can’t imagine, even if they’re on the Web, teachers and students will be studying for the long-term trend,” said Roy Truby, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent panel that oversees the NAEP program. “It’s such low stakes.”
Still, Mr. Truby and others acknowledge that the release of the items is troublesome because Congress is considering declaring that states’ results on another section of NAEP will be used to help determine whether states can earn rewards for improving student achievement under the education bill now pending on Capitol Hill.
Education Department officials are eyeing ways to strengthen the exam’s security to prevent future breaches that might help a state improve its showing on the national assessment.
The contract to run the $40 million program will be up for renewal this year, and the department will require all bidders to explain how they will prevent lapses such as the current one.
“It will give us the chance to build in additional security measures,” said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
The Maple River Education Coalition Political Action Committee posted the test questions on its Web site to demonstrate the group’s opposition to NAEP.
The St. Paul, Minn.-based group obtained the questions from a parent who was allowed to leave a school with the tests when it was given in 1996, said Julie Quist, the vice president of the organization, which claims to have 10,000 members.
Ms. Kozberg said department officials received reports that a test booklet had been removed from a school in 1996, but they cannot trace whether that disappearance was linked to the incident Ms. Quist described. To ensure NAEP performance cannot be traced to specific schools, all references to the schools that participated in the exam are destroyed after the tests are scored, Ms. Kozberg said.
The long-term trend assessment is given to 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds every four years, and is scheduled to be administered next in 2003.
In an interview last week, Ms. Quist said she was not sure exactly how long the questions had been on the site, but guessed that they were posted a couple of months ago.
The group publicized the questions to prove its point that NAEP asks questions the group believe it shouldn’t, said Ms. Quist, whose husband, Allen Quist, was a Republican candidate for Minnesota governor in 1994.
“The NAEP is essentially a way to set curriculum,” she said. “Whatever is assessed is what is taught.”
The group cited four reading-comprehension questions on a story about a Native American man named Black Elk relaying a legend that foretold the destruction of the Lakota tribe. The group objects to those questions because “they are an exercise in diversity training,” its Web site says.
Another NAEP test would have an even greater effect on curricula if the current Senate version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization is passed, Ms. Quist said. That bill would mandate that states administer a NAEP test, the results of which would be tied to financial rewards or penalties for states.
The House version of the bill would give states a choice of which national assessment they administer, but still require that a test be given. For that reason, the group opposes the House version as well, Ms. Quist said. The bill is in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee.
While some conservatives disagree with the Bush administration on the role of NAEP in the education plan, the administration is not going to back down on using the tests, Ms. Kozberg said.
“NAEP is the best test we have to confirm the state results,” she said.
In addition to objecting to the content of the test questions, the Maple River group doesn’t like the way NAEP collects personal information about students, such as parents’ educational attainment, race, and the amount of television the students watch.
But the questions are vital for researchers and the test developers, says one NAEP expert.
Researchers cite NAEP as one of the best monitors for the gaps in test scores between girls and boys and between students of different races, according to Albert Beaton, a professor of education at Boston College and a former official at the Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit test-maker that runs the NAEP program under an Education Department contract.