Assessment

Puerto Rican Officials Feud Over NAEP Participation

By Sean Cavanagh — November 21, 2008 4 min read
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Puerto Rican leaders are embroiled in a sharp disagreement over whether the island commonwealth should continue to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam in which their students have struggled.

The commonwealth’s secretary of education, Rafael Aragunde-Torres, wrote a letter earlier this month asking that U.S. officials allow it to be “permanently exempted” from participating in the test.

The secretary, in a Nov. 12 letter, argued that the translation of the NAEP in math, which has been given to Puerto Rican students in Spanish, as well as cultural differences not taken into account on test items, might be dragging down students’ scores there.

But those assertions have been rejected by Luis G. Fortuno, who was recently elected as Puerto Rico’s next governor. He currently serves as Puerto Rico’s “resident commissioner” in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a strongly worded letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Mr. Fortuno said removing Puerto Rico from NAEP would “do a terrible disservice to students, parents, and teachers” on the island. He accused Mr. Aragunde-Torres of “playing politics” with the issue.

Removing Puerto Rico from NAEP “does not promote the interests of the island’s public school students,” the governor-elect wrote on Nov. 19, “whose educational achievement continues to lag far behind students in the 50 states.”

Once he takes office, Mr. Fortuno will have the right to appoint his own education secretary to replace Mr. Aragunde-Torres, a move he intends to make, said Michelle Cuevas, the director of communications for the governor-elect’s transition.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires Puerto Rico to take part in NAEP to receive federal Title I funding, money that supports the education of disadvantaged students. A large proportion of students in Puerto Rico attend Title I-eligible schools, compared with students in the 50 states. U.S. officials have said that Puerto Rico is only required to take part in the math portion of the 4th and 8th grade NAEP, as opposed to stateside, where students must take part in both reading and math.

Puerto Rican students first took the math NAEP in 2003 and took it again in 2005. It was the first time NAEP had been administered to an entire jurisdiction in Spanish for students taught primarily in that language. Their scores were so low, and there was such a mismatch between expected and actual student performance, that federal officials had difficultly interpreting them, resulting in a delay of the release of test results. (“Puerto Rico Falls ‘Below Basic’ on Math NAEP,” April 4, 2007.)

In his letter, Mr. Aragunde-Torres said the NAEP given to Puerto Rican students was written from “an American cultural context.” He said U.S. officials could devise a new test that takes into account the island’s “linguistic and cultural differences” with input from mathematicians, linguists, and test experts. He also suggested that U.S. officials could offer another test, similar to international exams such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

Mr. Aragunde-Torres also appeared to request that U.S. officials issue a “suspension” of the public release of the 2007 NAEP results on the island.

Mr. Fortuno, the governor-elect, called the idea that linguistic differences were influencing Puerto Rican students’ scores “deeply unpersuasive.”

“While residents of Puerto Rico may use certain expressions or slang words that may not be immediately familiar to, say, citizens of Barcelona or Buenos Aires,” he wrote to Ms. Spellings, “these linguistic differences are no greater than those between residents of New England and the Deep South.”

Mulling Changes

The National Assessment Governing Board, the independent panel that sets policy for NAEP, held its quarterly meeting this week in Arlington, Va. A committee of the panel, which discussed the concerns raised by Mr. Aragunde-Torres, indicated that it plans to go forward with the release of the 2007 Puerto Rican NAEP scores next month, to be held in the United States, not on the island.

Some governing-board and staff members at that meeting also noted that changing the rules on Puerto Rico’s participation in NAEP would, in all likelihood, require congressional action.

Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in an interview that her staff was conducting research on how to address some of Mr. Aragunde-Torres’ concerns. The statistical agency, which administers NAEP, plans to work with Puerto Rican educators and officials to refine the test items and make sure they are appropriate.

Ms. Carr said she was trying to encourage Puerto Rican officials who were worried about NAEP to “slow down,” and help U.S. officials weigh possible changes to it. “We are hopeful that once we have a bigger perspective on some of these issues, we’ll make some inroads,” Ms. Carr said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week

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