In April the nation learned that reading achievement among fourth-grade children has been stagnant since 1992. We also learned that the gap between the most successful and the least successful students was growing and that the poorest readers were performing even worse than they had in 1992.
The reason we know these things is because of a federally funded testing program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been testing national samples of American students since 1969 in subjects including reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history. In addition, NAEP has been testing state samples of students and reporting on how their performance has compared from state to state since 1990.
NAEP scores provide powerful information that influences state and national policies as well as decisions about public investment in education. Unfortunately, Congress is about to act on legislation that could jeopardize the entire NAEP program.
In the next several weeks, Congress will act on President George W. Bush’s education plan. Bush wants the states to test every child in grades three through eight every year in reading and mathematics to see whether students are making progress or not. The states would get rewards or sanctions based on student achievement (or lack thereof).
The president proposed that states use a test of their choosing that produces comparable grade-by-grade results; he also recommended that states validate their claims by using the NAEP. At present, about forty states participate in NAEP and bear some of the costs. Bush would have the federal government pay for NAEP to be given to a sample of students in every state.
However, some in Congress insist that states should be free to get their second opinion from some nationally standardized test other than NAEP. If this provision passes, the NAEP testing program would be endangered. Because NAEP is more rigorous than most commercial tests, states would have good reason to shop around for an easier test. If significant numbers of states ceased participating in NAEP with congressional encouragement, NAEP would no longer have the data to report on state or national results. The fact is that no other testing program is equal to NAEP as an external audit for the states. Commercial test publishers sell their examination booklets to states and districts, where they are reused for several years until new editions are published. The administration and security of these testing programs are controlled by states and districts, not by an independent external organization.
Those who want states to have alternatives to NAEP say they are worried that the U.S. Department of Education might create a national curriculum. However, NAEP is controlled by a broad-based bipartisan governing board (the National Assessment Governing Board), not by the U.S. Department of Education. Congress created this governing board in 1988, when it authorized state-level administration of NAEP.
If Congress enacts legislation that inadvertently puts NAEP at risk, it would be a huge loss for the nation and for American education.