College & Workforce Readiness

NAGB: Wrestling With Common Standards, Testing Exclusions

By Catherine Gewertz — August 09, 2010 5 min read
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Roberto J. Rodriguez, a key education adviser in the White House, told the National Assessment Governing Board that the administration is “thrilled” with states’ progress in adopting the common standards. He appeared at NAGB’s quarterly meeting here in Washington last Friday to reflect on the president’s education policy agenda and on NAGB’s work. (For those of you who might not know, NAGB sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.)

There were no bombshells here; Rodriguez applauded, for instance, NAGB’s focus on state-level data and its “continued focus” on subjects beyond math and reading. It got a tad more interesting, though, when folks started lobbing questions.

Such as this one, from board member W. James Popham, a testing and measurement expert and a professor emeritus of UCLA’s graduate school of education and information studies: Does the government have “misplaced confidence” in the potential of common assessments?

“There’s a presumption that the test people know how to do this,” Popham said. “But the odds are it won’t be done well. And if it’s not done well, the whole game is over.”

Rodriguez thanked Popham for the input, and said the issue bears watching.

The prickly territory of common assessments came up at another juncture, too. Just before Rodriguez took the dais, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn discussed the unresolved governance questions about the common standards, many of which he and other Fordies have raised in their blog, weekly newsletter, and papers: Who will be in charge of the standards once all states have decided whether to adopt? What is the external audit role of NAEP if all or most students are taking the same assessments? (See EdWeek‘s take on this question, as well.)

Finn mused on the difficulty of establishing a common cut score across states on assessments, a key part of the initiative’s theory of comparability.

“This cut-score thing is going to be a nightmare,” he said. “I’m trying to envision Georgia and Connecticut trying to agree on a cut score for proficiency, and I’m envisioning an argument.”

Someone asked how it might work to have one definition of proficiency shared across assessments created by two different testing consortia. Finn smiled and said that was still to be determined. Chuckles rippled through the audience.

Board member Henry Kranendonk, a math curriculum specialist with the Milwaukee public schools, said he suspected that NAEP would be an important tool to measure whether the common standards were working. Wouldn’t it tell us something important, he asked, if the common assessments “said that kids were doing great,” but NAEP told us otherwise?

Finn agreed that NAEP’s role in auditing student achievement is “crucial.”

Other interesting tidbits from the meeting:

• Board member and former chair Darvin Winick asked Rodriguez if the board should make the 12th grade NAEP mandatory across all states. Rodriguez said he thought it was a “good idea,” and added that if the country wants to move toward college readiness for all students, “that conversation has to happen.”

•The board set achievement levels for the new version of the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade science test, which was given in 2009. But they won’t reveal those levels until the results are released in the fall.

• The reporting and dissemination committee discussed in minute detail the different ways states could be called out in reports for failing to meet the new exclusion levels adopted by NAGB for special education students and English-language learners. (You might recall that at its March meeting, the board issued a new policy aimed at excluding fewer students from NAEP.) Committee members debated whether to simply include a small footnote at the bottom of the page calling attention to states that fell short of the new exclusion rates, or to make a more prominent note at the top of the column. Arnold Goldstein, the NCES program director who was walking the committee through this discussion, noted that it might be a bit early to identify states so prominently when they fall short of the exclusion targets, since “this was not one of the conditions on which they thought they would be participating in NAEP” when they signed on. Committee staffer Larry Feinberg noted that when the policy was adopted, board member and West Virginia schools Superintendent Steven Paine inserted the language that states would be “prominently designated” when they fell short of targets. Growing impatient with the footnote conversation, board member Leticia Van de Putte, a Texas state senator, said she thought states should be color-highlighted. “We can’t continue to allow this,” she said. Committee members seemed inclined, in the end, to take a positive spin on the color-highlighting idea—by highlighting states that reached, instead of fell short of, the exclusion targets. How many of those would there be, though? Goldstein told committee members that “most” will meet the 95 percent tested target, but most will not meet the target of testing 85 percent of students learning English or those with disabilities.

• Deputy NCES Commissioner Stuart Kerachsky reflected on five of his chief concerns. (He was feeling reflective because of the possibility that he might not be serving in that role when a new NCES commissioner takes over.) In a sort of farewell love letter, Kerachsky called NAEP “a national treasure,” but compared himself with a bad dinner party guest who makes suggestions about the way the cuisine could be improved. He urged the board to think more about what changes in NAEP scores mean and how to explain them to the public. He urged the members to validate—and thus improve the confidence in—its achievement-level designations. The board should reflect more on what needs fixing in the 12th grade test and on how and if NAEP’s role should change because of the common core, he said. And he urged the board to reconsider how it treats charter schools in the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, because it creates “a false picture of progress and performance.”

That set off an alarm bell for NAGB member Andrew Porter, who asked for clarification. Kerachsky explained that TUDA doesn’t include charter schools unless they are part of the district. That creates a good deal of variation city to city, since in some cities many charter schools are chartered by the districts themselves, and in others, most are chartered by other entities, such as universities or the state.

“That really scares me,” Porter said. “That’s a huge issue. I now think about TUDA in a fundamentally less positive way than I used to.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.