Panel Recommends State-Level NAEP For 12th Graders

By Lynn Olson — March 10, 2004 6 min read
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The nation’s primary barometer of student performance should expand dramatically to provide mandatory state results on the achievement of 12th graders and to measure their readiness for college, employment, and the military.

The report, “12th Grade Student Achievement in America: A New Vision for NAEP,” is available from the National Assessment Governing Board. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Those are the chief recommendations of a national commission formed last year to review the future of the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Often known as “the nation’s report card,” the congressionally financed program provides the country’s best measure of student achievement in grades 4, 8, and 12. But even though all states must take part in NAEP reading and math tests in grades 4 and 8 every two years, participation in the 12th grade test is voluntary. And, until now, it has produced results only at the national level.

“Twelfth grade NAEP has the potential to supply crucial information about student achievement that America needs and that is unavailable from any other source, but NAEP is not now fulfilling the potential,” argues the commission’s report, “12th Grade Student Achievement in America: A New Vision for NAEP.”

The 18-member commission—of precollegiate and higher education faculty members, policymakers, and representatives from business and the military—was scheduled to present its report to the board that oversees NAEP late last week. The National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, which established the commission, is not expected to vote on its recommendations until summer.

In some sense, the 12th grade assessment is even more important than those in earlier grades, said Michael T. Nettles, a co-chairman of the commission and a member of the governing board, “because it is the final signal that we get about elementary and secondary education and its quality.”

Still, the commission took its recommendations a step further, contending that the test should not only look back at what students have learned through grade 12, but also ahead to how ready they are for further learning and employment.

That could prove especially controversial, given a lack of consensus about what knowledge and skills make a student ready for college.

Making participation in the state NAEP mandatory for grade 12 in reading and mathematics also would require action by Congress, including significantly more money. The costs of the proposals have yet to be estimated.

‘Not a Simple Matter’

“Changing the 12th grade assessment is not a simple matter,” said Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of NAGB, noting that the report provides the “beginning point” for further consideration and discussion.

The commission recommended that state participation in 12th grade science and writing tests be voluntary, as it is now in grades 4 and 8, with results available by state. Tests in additional subjects, such as economics, also would remain voluntary and yield results solely at the national level.

In making its recommendations, the commission asserted that NAEP is in a unique position to provide nationally representative data about the performance of high school seniors.

States typically do not test 12th graders, its report points out. And, even if they did, state tests vary so much in content and administration that the results cannot be added up to provide a national picture of performance.

College-admissions tests, such as the ACT and the SAT, are taken by a self-selected group of teenagers bound for college and also do not produce nationally representative data. College-placement tests and policies also vary widely.

Yet growing concerns about high schools and about rates of college retention and remediation have generated a hunger for such data. And the creation of a nationwide measure of college readiness could prove timely.

“We’ve really never set a national performance standard for college readiness,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.

The 12th grade NAEP “has potential to span the boundary between secondary and postsecondary education,” he argued in a background paper prepared for the governing board. “Even NAGB discussing college- readiness issues would stimulate K-16 meetings that otherwise would have no venue or incentive to occur.”

But he and others acknowledged that redesigning the 12th grade NAEP to assess college readiness would mean a whole new orientation for the long-standing program, and one fraught with difficulties.

In particular, Mr. Kirst said, higher education institutions, leaders, and lobbyists would be wary of an expanded NAEP role, since they already fear the extension of K-12 accountability policies to colleges. “They fear any camel’s nose under the tent,” he said.

An analysis conducted for the governing board by the Washington-based Education Trust also found a wide divergence between what NAEP items now measure and what’s measured on college- placement exams, particularly in math.

While college-placement tests essentially measure students’ knowledge of algebra and functions, based on multiple-choice items, NAEP items span a much wider range of topics, the study found. And the formats—including short-answer and long-answer questions—are so different that the tests are “nearly incomparable.”

Although a revised mathematics framework for NAEP 2005 includes more algebraic content, the report notes, it was too soon to tell whether that would make a difference. The study found similar discrepancies in writing, but fewer in reading.

An analysis by the Iowa City-based ACT Inc. program also found disparities between the content of NAEP 12th grade exams and the ACT’s WorkKeys system, designed to measure workplace readiness.

Low Participation Rates

But an even greater dilemma may be how to increase student- participation rates and motivation to do well on such a senior-year exam.

“The biggest challenge, I believe, is how do we get 12th graders, seniors in high school, to help America know what they know? To give us a real effort, a real picture, of what they know and can do, and to take this seriously in the final weeks of their senior year,” said Mark Musick, the co- chairman of the commission and the president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

“All too often,” said the NAGB member, “lots of seniors don’t appear to take too much seriously.”

Taking part in the 12th grade NAEP test is voluntary for both high schools and students selected for the national sample. Between 1988 and 2000, about one-third of students selected for the 12th grade test did not participate. That figure jumped significantly in 2002, when almost half the students drawn for the sample did not take the tests.

Such low participation rates are a “significant threat to the validity” of the exam, the commission noted.

It recommended “bold and dramatically new incentives” to increase participation and encourage students to do well on the tests, which do not carry individual consequences for students. Such incentives might range from recognition on high school transcripts to college scholarships.

Charles E. Smith, the executive director for NAGB, said the report would now go through an “elaborate” review process.

The board plans to share the report with interested groups, hold a public hearing on its recommendations, and form ad hoc committees to address specific issues, such as the costs associated with the proposals.

“We feel like this is a major item,” Mr. Smith said. “It deserves more than the normal amount of attention.”

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