Technical Issues, Cost May Keep Puerto Rico Students Out of NAEP

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 27, 2002 3 min read
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Puerto Rico, despite federal requirements that the island take part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, could be left out of the NAEP reading test because of technical difficulties and the anticipated high cost of developing and administering a Spanish-language version.

Members of the board that oversees the assessment program, in a meeting here this month, outlined the difficulty of designing a test for Puerto Rico with questions that are closely aligned to those on the test used throughout the United States.

Under the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Puerto Rico, a self-governing commonwealth in association with the United States, is treated as a state for purposes of the Title I program and NAEP. As such, it must participate in NAEP’s state-level assessment to get test results that allow comparison of the achievement of its students with those in other states.

Because the island’s students are taught primarily in Spanish, the law may require that the NAEP tests in math and reading also be developed in that language. (“Secretary Picks Fellow Texan to Head Assessment Board,” Sept. 4, 2002.)

But some members of the National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, questioned if the task is worth pursuing further.

“The Puerto Rico question is the proverbial elephant in the living room,” Mark D. Musick, the president of the Atlanta- based Southern Regional Education Board and a former NAGB chairman. “We’ve gotten on a Puerto Rico track that we need to get off of fast. We need to say it’s not feasible.”

Some members suggested they may need confirmation that Congress in fact understood the complexity of the issue when drafting the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the revised ESEA, and that the board should continue to pursue a solution.

At its meeting this past summer, the board approved a Spanish translation of the math test to be given on a trial basis to 4th and 8th graders in Puerto Rico next year. But the commonwealth was granted a waiver from participating in the reading assessment scheduled for next year because a test in Spanish does not exist.

The reading test, board members said, would be significantly more difficult to translate, particularly if the test is to be directly comparable to the one in English.

“The problems are not simply problems of translating passages and test questions; there are larger questions about the appropriateness of passages, the cultural context,” and whether equal scores in the two languages would be statistically equivalent, said Edward H. Haertel, a professor of education at Stanford University and a NAGB member. “As a technical expert, I personally don’t see any way to do it. I believe it’s probably impossible.”

Producing an original Spanish-language test that measures essentially the same knowledge and skills as the test in English is in fact feasible, Mr. Haertel added. But it would not necessarily yield comparable results, he said.

Several members of the governing board and consultants to the board also warned that translating the NAEP reading test into Spanish could set off debates over whether the test should be an option for all test-takers across the United States whose primary language is Spanish.

But Mr. Haertel cautioned that should a Spanish- language version be developed for Puerto Rico, the test still might not be appropriate for other Spanish-speaking students because the language differences between Spanish-speakers on the island and in the United States are considerable.

Watching Closely

Advocates for students with limited English proficiency will likely be following the board’s progress on the issue.

“Puerto Rico will have to meet these requirements under [No Child Left Behind] and come up with high-quality assessments just like everybody else,” said Raul Gonzalez, an education policy analyst for the Washington- based National Council of LaRaza, a Hispanic advocacy group. “Spanish-language testing is practicable, and for those states that are going to have a lot of LEP kids and want to know how well they are doing, it would be great if they had some help from the feds, given they have to bring kids to proficiency in same amount of time.”

In other action at the meeting, the board approved the creation of a commission to undertake a comprehensive study of the 12th grade NAEP tests. The commission, to be headed by Mr. Musick and board member Michael Nettles, will review the purpose, strengths, and weaknesses of the assessment and make recommendations for improving it.

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Technical Issues, Cost May Keep Puerto Rico Students Out of NAEP


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