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The National Assessment of Educational Progress should be broadened to gauge how American youths are faring on a range of academic, social, health, and cultural indicators, contends a report that calls for new measures of educational outcomes and equity.
“Reassessing the Achievement Gap: Fully Measuring What Students Should Be Taught in School” argues that NAEP results offer a “distorted” picture of student achievement because of their exclusive focus on academic skills and take attention away from nontested areas that often fall under the purview of schools.
“When you focus only on basic academic skills, you create incentives to redirect all the attention and resources away from broader goals to narrow academic skills,” said Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “What gets measured gets done. The idea is that we’re not going to restore balance to our schools unless we measure all those things that we expect schools to do.”
A comprehensive assessment of in-school and out-of-school adolescents and young adults could provide a more complete picture of how well schools and other youth-development institutions are preparing them for later success, the report maintains. Such an assessment could be done by expanding NAEP survey questions and reinstating some of the data-collection practices used in the testing program in the 1970s. Those were abandoned largely because of the expense.
The report was written by Mr. Rothstein; Rebecca Jacobsen, a researcher at Michigan State University, in East Lansing; and Tamara Wilder, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. It outlines eight broad goals for schools, including basic academic skills, critical thinking, social skills and work ethic, readiness for citizenship, physical and emotional health, appreciation of arts and literature, and preparation for work. Many educators have complained that the increased focus on instruction in math and reading, the subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act, has forced schools to push many of those elements to the margins. While the goals that Mr. Rothstein and his colleagues have set forth are important, they may go beyond the role of public schools and the national assessment program, some officials say.
The proposal raises the question of whether NAEP’s role is to “track what is the status of public education or what is the status of American youth or American families,” said Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. “It goes beyond what many people believe schools should cover.”
National assessments in reading and mathematics are administered every two years to national and state samples of 4th and 8th graders, and every four years to 12th graders. Tests are also given regularly in U.S. history, science, and writing, and periodically in the arts, civics, economics, geography, and foreign language.
Mr. Winick said a working group of the board that is studying issues related to the 12th grade NAEP could review the proposal, but that an expanded survey may not be practical, especially given the program’s tight budget.
“It might be fascinating to know the answers to some of those questions,” he said, “but those surveys are not easy to do well, and they are dangerous to do if not done well.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week