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Shine a Light, Secretary Says (Using NAEP)

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If Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has her way, "the nation's report card" will soon have its own place on state and local report cards.

Back in April, her department proposed federal rules that would require states and local education agencies to report state results on the National Assessment of Educational Progess (dubbed "the nation's report card") on their report cards, which detail results on state assessments.

Those proposals were put out for public comment, and the secretary said the final regulations are likely to be issued in October or November. On Tuesday, Spellings said she still favors going forward with that change as a way to provide the public with another measure of student academic performance. (States are required to take part in NAEP reading and math tests to receive federal Title I funds.)

"Transparency is a big part of our work," Spellings told an audience in Washington. The secretary was speaking at an event sponsored by the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences. The board hosted a gathering focused on strategies for moving the recommendations of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel into policy.

The secretary told the audience that she occasionally hears policymakers argue that the public won't know how to interpret the NAEP results, or why the NAEP scores are different from state results. But she said the public has a right to know how students are performing on the national test, too.

The original, proposed rule says that local education agencies would be required to report state NAEP results on their report cards, too. The rule, published in the Federal Register, lays out some of these arguments:

"The Department recognizes that simple comparisons of student
performance on the NAEP and State assessments cannot be made without
some understanding of the key differences between the two assessments.
For example, the NAEP is not aligned with State academic content and
achievement standards and, therefore, does not necessarily reflect the
curriculum and instruction to which students are exposed in the
classroom. Therefore, the Department encourages States to provide
information to parents on how to interpret the NAEP and State data.
When the NAEP assessment information is presented in the appropriate
context, the Department believes information on how students in a State
are performing on State assessments compared to their performance on
the NAEP will provide for greater transparency and give parents another
tool to assess the education system in their State."

A cynic might say that states have another reason to resist having NAEP scores published alongside those from their state exams: NAEP often presents a more negative view of student achievement. A number of studies have also shown that some states set considerably lower standards for judging student proficiency than NAEP does.

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One concern about NAEP is that the levels-setting process was seriously flawed, according to National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Education, CRESST and other independent researchers. This resulted in very high definitions of proficient. Separate research shows that many states set their definition of proficient close to what NAEP describes as basic. NAEP basic in fact describes about the middle of current grade level attainments.

States would be advised to include the proviso that is still attached to NAEP reports saying that the levels are still provisional, not final, and that the levels were defined very high, so that proficient was set around the top quarter of the test score distribution. They should report actual scores and their distribution, not the levels (at least not without the caveat).

Spellings and her allies of course keep referring in misleading fashion to NAEP 'proficient' as 'grade level,' a point often echoed by the media.

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