National School Testing Urged

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, are reporting student proficiency rates so much higher than what the most respected national measure has found that several influential education experts are calling for a move toward a national testing system.

The growing talk of national testing and standards comes in the fifth year of the No Child Left Behind era. That federal law sought to hold public schools accountable for academic performance but left it up to states to design their own assessments. So the definition of proficiency -- what it means for a student to perform at grade level -- varies from coast to coast.

Maryland recently reported that 82 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in reading on the state's test. The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card," show 32 percent of Maryland fourth-graders at or above proficiency in reading.

Virginia announced last week that 86 percent of fourth-graders reached that level on its reading test, but the NAEP data show 37 percent at or above proficiency.

Some experts say it's time to be more clear about how well American schoolchildren are doing.

"The more discontented the public is with confusing and dumbed-down standards, the more politically feasible it will be to create national standards of achievement," said Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor who was an assistant U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

The political obstacles are formidable, including a long tradition of local control over public education. But the approaching presidential campaign, a pending debate over congressional reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law and the wide gaps between assessments have raised hopes among proponents that the issue will gain steam. Some say gradual steps toward a national system would be better than none.

A recent study by Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, found that states regularly inflate student achievement. In 12 states studied, the percentage of fourth-graders proficient in reading climbed by nearly two percentage points a year, on average.

The NAEP (pronounced "Nape") data show a decline on average in the percentage who were proficient over the same period, Fuller said.

Another Fuller-led study found only three states -- Massachusetts, Missouri and South Carolina -- with proficiency standards that come close to NAEP's. (A similar rating by the journal Education Next showed that D.C. school standards have been stringent. It showed 14 percent of D.C. elementary school children reading proficiently on the D.C. scale and 11 percent on NAEP's.)

Unlike state tests, which are used to help rate public schools and measure achievement of all students in certain grades, NAEP has a more limited mission. It tests selected pools of students in key subject areas to produce data on long-term educational trends.

NAEP standards were designed to establish what students ought to know to do well in the next grade and beyond, said Mark D. Musick, former president of the Southern Regional Education Board, who helped draft them. State standards, he said, more typically reflect what teachers say are the levels good students reach in their classes.

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