NAEP Redesign Plan Increases Testing

K-12 Testing

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) released in August a Policy Statement on Redesigning the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The report contains many dangerous policies that would make NAEP a more frequent but less in-depth assessment. This could set the stage for turning NAEP into a national accountability test. Any such test would increase federal control over curriculum and instruction (see Examiner, Winter, 1990-91).


NAEP uses exams and surveys in various subjects to track the country s educational progress, and it now includes voluntary state-level exams and trials of district-level tests (see Examiner, Spring 1995, Winter 1993-94). NAGB is a political body, appointed by the Secretary of Education, which oversees NAEP and which has long advocated for NAEP expansion (see Examiner, Winter 1993-94, Spring 1992).


In a June letter to NAGB opposing the redesign, FairTest argued that the NAGB plan will lead to more testing of lower quality. Instead, NAEP needs less frequent assessments of higher quality. NAEP should be retained as a useful monitoring tool that provides some help for improving education. It should not become a national accountability test. The final Policy Statement, however, is essentially unchanged from NAGB's earlier draft.


More Testing

The heart of Redesigning is a plan for frequent, less detailed studies that would result in a standard report card containing just test score results. NAEP would focus on testing in reading, writing, math and science every few years, with other subjects assessed less often.


To pay for more frequent testing, NAEP would reduce the in-depth surveys of student backgrounds, classroom characteristics and teaching methods that it currently administers with each assessment. Such studies would be done perhaps once per decade and only in some subjects. Reports on student achievement and data analyses would be far less detailed.


Education Week reported that an earlier draft of the redesign called for heavy reliance on multiple-choice and short-answer items. Though this recommendation is not in th final version, more multiple-choice items could be the result of budget constraints.


NAGB hopes to save money by changing its sampling procedures, for example by testing the same students for state and national assessments, rather than using two separate groups, as is now the case. Further, NAGB will consider combining some assessments in order to reduce the number of tests and will consider ways to simplify the assessment design. NAGB also plans to reduce costs by consolidating what are now two kinds of tests, one to report current achievement and another to report trend data. All the savings are directed toward increasing the frequency of testing.


Redesigning also includes drawing international comparisons and linking NAEP to state assessments as part of its three key objectives. These are expensive activities which will absorb funds better spent on developing higher-quality national-level assessments, including the surveys that will now be curtailed.


According to the draft s objectives, NAEP should help improve education. The report correctly notes that there is much NAEP cannot do, but it does not specify how it can be helpful. NAGB also fails to recognize that simply reporting scores does not aid educational improvement.


To make use of score results, one has to know, among other things, what caused the results. NAEP surveys can help in this analysis, but NAGB wants to curtail them. The result could well be a regular flow of data that focuses attention on meaningless swings in scores, but which lacks the contextual information that would make the score data useful.


FairTest Recommendations

FairTest recommends a substantially different approach. NAEP should be administered less frequently but retain much of its current depth, and it should use performance tasks as the primary assessment method. That is, rather than frequent report cards, NAEP should continue to provide comprehensive reports that can help explain assessment results. Rather than sticking with its Policy Statement, NAGB should first develop a draft long-term plan that would help the public understand the consequences of a redesign. This plan should also explain and justify proposed trade-offs between frequency and quality.


Redesigning is properly concerned that testing results be more understandable to NAEP s primary audience, the general public. This goal should be met by striving for more clarity, particularly in the area of achievement levels. The levels have been fraught with problems in both definition and interpretation (see Examiner, Fall 1991, Spring 1992). The law requires NAEP achievement levels to be continually evaluated until they are of high quality, but the redesign fails to address the many criticisms directed at the levels.


National Exam?

Many critics have charged that NAGB s primary interest, dating back to its inception in the late 1980s when it was chaired by conservative eucator Chester Finn, has been to make NAEP a national test (see Examiner, Spring 1995, Winter 1993-94). NAGB has consistently pushed for expansion of NAEP, first to the state level and then to individual school districts (the law now authorizes trial district-level assessments and assumes that state-level assessments will become permanent). However, it has not been able to dramatically increase NAEP s funding, which puts NAGB in a bind: to test more frequently in more subjects, it has to use less comprehensive assessments.


Administering more exams more frequently moves NAEP further down the road toward becoming a continuous national test. When the program was first created in the 1960s, its founders promised the public that would never happen.


Further evidence that expansion is an underlying NAGB intent is found in how Redesigning addresses the problem that students, particularly twelfth-graders, do not take the test seriously, so that the test results underestimate actual student achievement. NAGB locates this problem in the fact that neither schools nor students receive test scores or other useful information. This should be changed... [through use of] meaningful, practical incentives... to try harder. Implicitly, then, NAGB is calling for expanding NAEP to include at least school-level results.


The question is, will making NAEP a national test do anything to improve U.S. education? There is no evidence to suggest it would, and in the process the nation would lose a useful monitoring tool in exchange for more federal control over curriculum and instruction through testing. Lawmakers and the public should be aware of this danger and inform NAGB that they do not approve of its redesign.


NAGB can be reached at 800 N. Capitol St., NW, #825, Washington, DC 20002; 202/357-6938; fax 202/357-6945.