The federal testing program has been a tool akin to a ruler for 30 years, measuring students’ knowledge of basic subjects.
Now, President Clinton and two leading presidential contenders want to turn it into a lever, giving states financial incentives to improve performance and close the gap between high and low achievers.
While the proposals have bipartisan support, some longtime supporters of the National Assessment of Educational Progress question whether the federal government should tie a carrot to what traditionally has been a yardstick.
In addition to changing the nature of NAEP, the money could gradually increase federal influence over local curriculum—one of the complaints that helped sidetrack Mr. Clinton’s plan for new, but still voluntary, national tests yielding individual scores.
“I believe in NAEP as something like an independent audit of American education that itself is not a part of the education reform machinery,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the chairman of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and one of the assessment program’s biggest boosters since his tenure as an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration.
If the federal government started giving financial incentives for NAEP performance, states would start to “organize what they’re doing around NAEP, instead of NAEP being an independent audit,” Mr. Finn said.
“It was designed to give people data, but nobody ever conceived of it to give rewards or impose sanctions,” added Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education and an assistant education secretary under President Bush.
Even though Mr. Cross said he is undecided about the NAEP proposals, he said they would be a “major departure” from the program’s past.
But the pressure to turn the national assessment into a tool for accountability appears to be gaining momentum.
President Clinton is proposing to spend $50 million in fiscal 2001 to reward states that show significant gains on NAEP and narrow the gap between low-achieving students and top scorers. Administration officials are still defining exactly how much states would need to improve to qualify for the grants. The first round of grants would be awarded based on scores from this year’s mathematics and science tests, which were administered last month and whose results are scheduled for release next year.
“Each year, our national government invests more than $15 billion in our schools,” Mr. Clinton said in announcing the initiative in his most recent State of the Union Address. “It is time to support what works and stop supporting what doesn’t.”
Vice President Al Gore in December proposed a similar bonus pool as part of of his broader education initiative. The explanation on his presidential campaign’s World Wide Web site does not say how much he would recommend spending on the proposal or how the money would be distributed.
In a major policy address last October, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, called for a $100 million-a-year fund to reward states that close the achievement gap between low- and high-scoring students and raise overall performance. He said that states could use results from NAEP, as well as the SAT, the Advanced Placement tests, and other exams, to qualify for grants from the fund.
Mr. Finn, who was the first chairman of the board created in 1988 to oversee the national assessment, said he wouldn’t object to Mr. Bush’s idea of including NAEP as one of many measures states could cite to show improvement. While Mr. Finn, an adviser to the Bush campaign, admitted the idea was “a cousin” of financial bonuses based solely on NAEP scores, he said he saw a distinction: The stakes on NAEP would not be high enough to dramatically alter how states approached the assessment.
Others, including some within the Clinton administration, question whether NAEP should make the transition from a measuring stick to a financial plum.
“This would put NAEP in the arena of a high-stakes test,” Gary W. Phillips, the acting commissioner of education statistics in the Department of Education, said in an interview.
Mr. Phillips raised a series of questions about such a program’s impact on the testing program, which has assessed student performance on a national level since 1970 and has offered state-by-state results since 1990.
States have never had financial incentives to perform well on NAEP, he noted. Any new money could encourage school officials to teach to the test for the first time or might even lead them to cheat, he suggested. Such changes, he said, also could distort comparisons with previous years’ scores.
Backers of the idea say that NAEP would remain a low-stakes test, especially compared with state tests with penalties as severe as identifying schools for a state takeover.
“It’s a soft incentive, in the sense that it’s not a lot of money and it doesn’t have a lot of clout,” said Marshall S. Smith, the former acting deputy secretary of education, who helped craft Mr. Clinton’s proposal before he left that post to return to Stanford University late last year. “Yet it does heighten the interest at the state level.”
No Place Else To Go
The national assessment—created by Congress and sometimes called the nation’s “report card"—started three decades ago by collecting national-average scores of science, mathematics, and reading. In the 1980s, the program introduced a writing test, and in the 1990s, it has added arts, civics, and other subjects. The assessment tests a sampling of students, and does not produce individual scores.
Since 1990, NAEP has offered state-level results to states that assemble enough participating schools to form a valid sample. Over the past 10 years, it also has reported scores based on the percentages of students who score at four achievement levels: “advanced,” “proficient,” “basic,” and “below basic.”
But throughout its history, performance on NAEP has never had any consequences for students, schools, districts, or states. Its very insulation from such considerations has led some test researchers to suggest its results for high school seniors are inaccurate because students nearing graduation put little effort into the test or any other schoolwork.
While NAEP’s backers want to protect it from what are called high stakes, other observers argue that if the federal government wants to create financial incentives for improvements in achievement, NAEP is the best test available to them.
“If we’re serious about rewarding states for improving student performance, we need to have a benchmark that is nationally used and rigorous,” said Heidi A. Ramirez, a special assistant to the deputy secretary of education. “NAEP fits that criteria.”
Norm-referenced tests from the various publishers that states use in their own testing programs can’t provide accurate comparisons from state to state. And even if they could, they measure student achievement against the national average, making it difficult to show progress over the course of several years.
Bipartisan backing for NAEP bonuses may mean the idea will be debated, but it doesn’t guarantee it will be carried out.
“It puts some momentum behind it,” Mr. Cross said. But, he pointed out, Congress successfully rallied to oppose Mr. Clinton’s national-test proposal, first put forth in 1997, and that could happen with the latest proposal.
The debate also suggests that the federal government is going to keep playing a significant role in K-12 policy—regardless of the party in power.
Gov. Bush’s view of the federal role differs significantly from that of President Reagan’s and of the Republicans who won control of the House in 1994, said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group.
While Mr. Reagan and House conservatives wanted to scale back the federal role dramatically, Mr. Bush’s proposal would give the government a new and more substantial part to play, according to Mr. Jennings, a former aide to House Democrats.
“What it shows,” he predicted, “is that the federal role in education is not going away; it’s going to get more significant.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as NAEP Weighed as Measure Of Accountability