Assessment

Researchers Helping NAEP Board Find Value in Background Queries

October 02, 2002 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Researchers weighed in last week on ways to rethink the often-controversial background questions that accompany “the nation’s report card,” in an attempt to enhance the assessment’s research and policymaking value.

They did so at the request of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ governing board, which has new authority to approve the background questions posed to students, teachers, and school administrators. Before the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the board simply advised the Department of Education.

The National Assessment Governing Board, which is aiming to devise a framework for approaching the background questions by next May, asked researchers to submit papers on a number of related topics.

Some questions, those dealing with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, have long been the backbone of NAEP. Such information helps education officials monitor achievement for different student populations over time.

But the questions also delve into other matters, such as students’ behavior, school experiences, and home environments, as well as teachers’ backgrounds and instructional practices. Some policymakers and parents contend that those kinds of questions are an invasion of privacy.

Narrowing the Focus

John H. Stevens, a governing-board member appointed by President Bush, pointed out that the background questions have been around since the inception of the 33-year-old testing program, which periodically samples students in a variety of subjects. Mr. Stevens, the executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition and the board member who is spearheading the background-question effort, said last week’s meeting represented just the beginning of the process.

The No Child Left Behind Act ratchets up the importance of NAEP. All states will now be required to administer the tests. In addition, NAEP exams will be given at least every other year in reading and mathematics for 4th and 8th graders and be used as an independent benchmark for gauging states’ progress on their own tests.

“NAEP has only realized 10 or 15 percent of its capability,” David W. Grissmer, an education researcher at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., told governing-board members at their Sept. 24 workshop.

He suggested that improvements to the background questions, coupled with other changes in data collection and sampling procedures, would substantially improve NAEP’s value. Mr. Grissmer estimated that the governing board could eliminate two-thirds of the current background questions without harming research, if the remaining questions were more carefully crafted and clearly focused.

Mr. Grissmer also recommended creating a “simple” parent survey to improve the research value.

Moreover, he argued that some current background questions “encourage misuse.” He cited a question about students’ television-viewing habits that he characterized as being driven by overly simple research hypotheses.

Ina V.S. Mullis, a researcher at Boston College, made the point, echoed by others, that the board should devise a focused set of questions because students and teachers have limited time and patience.

“Think of a primary purpose for these background questions,” she said. “Pick something manageable ... something that at least might be feasible.”

Paul E. Barton, an independent testing expert, called the background questions an “under-attended aspect of NAEP” in his paper.

Mr. Barton said a dramatic expansion in background questions started in 1984, largely to reflect a desire to explain levels of achievement.

Herbert J. Walberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a visiting fellow at Stanford University, offered a laundry list of potential indicators the questions might address: school choice, class size, and retention of failing students in their current grades, among them.

The national assessment, he acknowledged, could not reasonably examine all the areas, though items could be “rotated” among students to minimize the burden.

No More ‘Ornaments’

One researcher, however, was skeptical of NAEP’s value in shedding light on how schools and teachers affect student achievement.

Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at the University of Missouri, said some responses from students, and even teachers, might not be very reliable. Moreover, no prior data are available on the students tested, he pointed out.

State tests hold far greater promise for answering questions on what factors affect student achievement, Mr. Podgursky argued, because states have increasingly rich data on students, teachers, and classroom practices. Given the limited resources for NAEP, he said, money should not go toward getting at such issues in NAEP.

“I’d love to see a bigger sample size,” he said, rather than “adding more ornaments.”

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NAEP must not “evaluate or assess personal or family beliefs and attitudes.” Congress said that provision does not prohibit the use of “nonintrusive” background questions if they have a demonstrated relationship to academic achievement. In addition, all questions must be “secular, neutral, and nonideological,” a provision of the 1994 edition of the ESEA as well.

“People don’t want the national assessment to intrude,” Mr. Stevens of the governing board said.

The board earlier this year approved definitions of secular, neutral, and nonideological and removed a background item related—though vaguely—to religion when it approved the reading and math tests for 2003.

In a set of questions about the amount of time students spend outside of school reading nonfiction, the board this summer axed an item that said “books about religion or philosophy.”

Related Tags:

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment Data Young Adolescents' Scores Trended to Historic Lows on National Tests. And That's Before COVID Hit
The past decade saw unprecedented declines in the National Assessment of Educational Progress's longitudinal study.
3 min read
Assessment Long a Testing Bastion, Florida Plans to End 'Outdated' Year-End Exams
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will shift to "progress monitoring" starting in the 2022-23 school year.
5 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he believes a new testing regimen is needed to replace the Florida Standards Assessment, which has been given since 2015.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Assessment Spotlight Spotlight on Assessment in 2021
In this Spotlight, review newest assessment scores, see how districts will catch up with their supports for disabled students, plus more.
Assessment 'Nation's Report Card' Has a New Reading Framework, After a Drawn-Out Battle Over Equity
The new framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress will guide development of the 2026 reading test.
10 min read
results 925693186 02
iStock/Getty