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Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 02/17/2012

In defense of NAEP

I published a guest post that was highly criticial of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, an exam sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card and the gold standard of standardized assessment.

The Nov. 4, 2011 post was written by James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable who helped write the seminal 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” authored or co-authored four books and dozens of articles on education, and has examined the history of NAEP as part of his doctoral studies at Seattle University.

It said in part: “Proficiency remains a tough nut to crack for most students, in all subjects, at all grade levels. NAEP routinely reports that only one third of American students are proficient or better, no matter the subject, the age of the students, or their grade level. But no one should be surprised. NAEP’s benchmarks, including the proficiency standard, evolved out of a process only marginally better than throwing darts at the wall.

The National Assessment Governing Board, which adminsters NAEP, strongly disagreed with this post. Here is a post by David Driscoll, chairman of the governing board, taking issue with Harvey.

By David Driscoll

An article on this blog by James Harvey asserts that the performance standards set on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), are invalid and that the proficient achievement level is set too high. Not only do current studies refute that claim but his line of thinking hampers our very real need to set standards that will better prepare our nation’s students for college and careers.

Mr. Harvey made similar assertions in Education Week that were refuted by Dr. Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board that I chair. But I would like to present the view of the importance of the NAEP achievement levels, especially the proficient level, from the perspective of a state commissioner of education. I served as Massachusetts commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999 to 2007.

The Nov. 4, 2011, post notes that Mr. Harvey “...helped write the seminal 1983 report ‘ A Nation at Risk ’…” This report marked a watershed in American education. It documented the seriously low levels of achievement among elementary and secondary students and undemanding curricula in U.S. schools; compellingly warned of the threat to national security and economic competitiveness inherent in citizens poorly prepared academically; and galvanized education leaders across the country to take action to increase the rigor of school curricula.

The messages in “A Nation at Risk,” challenging and difficult to face as they were, led to action because they were resonant with truth. Because the challenges of global competition the United States faces are even more true today than in 1983, a truth teller about our students’ education performance was never more needed.

During the time I was commissioner, Massachusetts chose NAEP performance standards and the NAEP definitions of advanced, proficient and basic as our guides in developing our own curriculum frameworks, state assessments, and performance standards.

In Massachusetts, we looked at the achievement of our students and the number of students that were performing at what we thought were the proper levels and recognized that NAEP — with its rigorous content and challenging proficient performance standard — told the real truth. Mr. Harvey states that many analysts endorse the NAEP basic performance standard as the appropriate level — but that is just kidding them and ourselves.

In fact, a number of years ago, the Boston Globe reported on a study that showed 85% of Massachusetts students who scored proficient on the Massachusetts 10th-grade state tests were able to go on to college without needing remediation. In other words, “college ready” correlated with the Massachusetts proficient level, which we had aligned with NAEP proficient. It is certainly not by accident that within a couple of years after setting high standards using NAEP as a guide, Massachusetts students in 4th and 8th grade shot to the top of the country in both reading and mathematics . No other state had ever led the country on all four NAEP tests. Massachusetts has now done so for a decade, with these levels of student achievement continuing.

Our improvement over time also has been significant. The percentage of Massachusetts students at or above proficient in mathematics at the 4th grade on NAEP has risen from 23% in 1992 to 58% in 2011; the percentage at advanced has risen from 2% to 13% over the same period. There are similar patterns of improvement in mathematics at grade 8 and in reading at grades 4 and 8.

However, despite these improvements, achievement gaps between white and African-American and white and Hispanic students remain unacceptable. Also, Massachusetts’ performance on international assessments pales in comparison to a large number of countries, leading me to characterize our performance on NAEP as “the best of a poor lot.”

Mr. Harvey asserts that NAEP standards are too high. However, setting standards should not be about where defenders of the status quo find comfort, but about telling the truth. Today, literally millions of young people across America leave high school with a diploma and enter four-year colleges and community colleges needing remediation in reading, mathematics, and writing. Far too many get discouraged after a few years of taking non-credit bearing courses and leave. The system that gave them a high school diploma told them they are ready, but that is not the truth.

The real truth is that unless a student is performing at or about proficient, as defined by NAEP, they are not college and career ready. Our nation needs a truth teller to keep us on course — our students and parents deserve no less. NAEP is that truth teller.

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