National Standards, And The Future of NAEP

By Sean Cavanagh — March 05, 2009 2 min read
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I attended an interesting event in Washington yesterday: a conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the NAEP. The gathering brought together a lot of people from the nation’s capitol and outside the Beltway who have been instrumental in shaping the exam known as “the nation’s report card” and making it what it is today. Those attendees spent an afternoon looking forward, and looking back.

The conference was divided into a series of panel discussions. The last one of the day brought together four people who have played insiders’ roles in shaping federal education policy for decades: Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, Chester “Checker” Finn Jr., of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, education historian Diane Ravitch, and Mike Cohen of Achieve.

Much of their discussion focused on what role the NAEP, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress, might play amid the rebirth of interest in national standards and, potentially, national testing. Not federal standards or national standards emanating from Washington, everybody seemed eager to point out—but standards originating with states, nonprofit organizations, subject-matter groups, and others.

The panelists, like other attendees at the conference, heaped praise on the NAEP as a barometer of student progress, independent of state tests. (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who also spoke during the day, called the test a “truth teller” on student achievement, no matter whether the truth was good, bad, or ugly.)

How might the NAEP’s role change if states, governors, and interest groups unite behind common standards, or tests? Cohen suggested that NAEP would continue to be a valuable tool for judging state standands and exams for the forseeable future. “We need a check on state tests,” he said. Jennings said it was his impression that the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent entity that sets policy for NAEP, is interested in getting involved in the standards movement. “I would approach this issue very cautiously,” he said. If the public and political perceptions are that national standards were guided from Washington, they could derail those efforts. Even so, NAGB could play a role in leading a discussion over how standards could be set, and bring some coherence to those academic goals, from early grades through 12th grade, Jennings said.

The panelists also touched on other debates over federal and state testing. Finn, who played a big role in designing the “achievement levels” used on the NAEP to judge students as proficient, basic, and so on, acknowledged that they were controversial when they’re created, and they’re controversial now. “Among people who have never seen a standard they like,” he quipped.

“Nobody likes it,” Finn added, and “nobody has come up with a decent alternative.” (Here’s an Ed Week story from 1990 on how the achievement levels were set.)

Ravitch noted the oft-cited discrepancy between the rosy state estimates of student proficiency and those reported on the NAEP. She described the reported state gains as “ridiculous,” made possible by “politically motivated” cut scores. Ravitch said one way to cope with those differences would be for the feds to require states to not only report on the status of students scoring “proficient,” but also to report how they set their scale scores for their exams.

You can check out out papers and presentations made at the conference here.

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