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Agency Defends Exclusion of Online News Sites From Early Access to Test Data

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The federal agency that administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress is standing by its decision to exclude a group of online news organizations from early, embargoed access to test results this week.

The National Assessment Governing Board decided to bar Chalkbeat, Gotham Schools, and Ed News Colorado from the early access provided other news organizations to data and a background briefing on 4th and 8th grade mathematics and reading results.

"Right now reporters being briefed on new #NAEP scores. We're not b/c @GovBoard has inexplicably barred @gothamschools & @Chalkbeat," said a Twitter posting, or tweet, from GothamSchools on Wednesday.

The three sites (GothamSchools, Chalkbeat, and Ed News Colorado) are part of the same organization and are being re-branded under the Chalkbeat banner. They actually learned Monday in an email from a NAGB contractor that they would not be given the embargoed access.

"While the Board understands that these groups may have received access in the past, their current relationship with the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center is considered to be an affiliation with an outside organization and therefore outside of the embargo access policy," the contractor, Reingold Inc., said in the email. "This determination is based the [sic] Governing Board's understanding of the current relationship with the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center with the understanding that Chalkbeat may eventually be an independently funded news outlet."

Elizabeth Green, the editor of the Chalkbeat sites, said in an interview that the Colorado nonprofit center acts solely as the "fiscal sponsor" of the Chalkbeat sites because they have yet to receive their own nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service. The center provides back-office services such as human resources, she said.

"Its sole purpose is to incubate non-profit groups," Green said. "It's really not dissimilar from contracting with an outside HR or back-office services firm."

The Chalkbeat sites applied for the same embargoed access given many other print, broadcast, and online news outlets. That includes up to 48 hours advance access to the NAEP results, and a background briefing with officials the day before the expiration of the embargo allows news outlets to publish their stories. For this week's NAEP results, the embargo expired at 10 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday.

"We protested the decision, and I still don't understand their rationale," Green said. "I think it is important to make a distinction between who is an independent news organization and who isn't. But we are. We follow professional standards just like any other news organization."

Cornelia Orr, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in an interview that the agency adopted an informal policy about three years ago regarding access to its embargoed data. The policy requires that news organizations be independent, she said.

"We developed a policy that seems to have come right up against Chalkbeat," Orr said. "I'm sympathetic to their being caught here and not having independent status, but that's what it was."

Orr said NAGB has received requests from advocacy groups seeking the same embargoed access that independent news organizations receive. She cited the Education Trust as one example. Such groups are excluded under the policy. (After some reflection, Orr declined to provide a copy of the informal policy, saying it was an internal document.)

Many federal agencies in Washington have variations of early access to embargoed materials, such as unemployment reports in the U.S. Department of Labor or crop forecasts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The pre-publication access is meant to help reporters digest complex data.

"The governing board's first and primary responsibility is to protect the NAEP data and to get the cleanest story about the NAEP data out there," Orr said.

Meanwhile, Orr noted, there have been fast-paced changes in the media in recent years, including many new online news outlets. Among the Web news organizations that did get the embargoed access this week were the Huffington Post and Stateline.org, she said.

Orr also said that in Chalkbeat's case for this NAEP release, there was a fair amount of "11th hour" back and forth before NAGB decided to exclude its sites.

"We didn't want to feel pressured at the end and let Chalkbeat in and not others who had applied earlier," she said. [At least one other online news site, EdSource Today, which focuses on California schools, said late Thursday on a listserv for the Education Writers Association that it had sought access to the embargoed NAEP materials and was turned down. I didn't have the chance to ask Orr about the particulars of that.]

Chalkbeat's Green said her organization got hold of the NAEP data through other sources on Wednesday and prepared stories that were ready to publish as soon as the embargo ended on Thursday morning. (She didn't identify the sources, but said Chalkbeat agreed to observe the embargo time.)

Orr noticed that the Chalkbeat stories had benefited from some alternative early access.

"An embargo is an embargo, and I appreciate that they abided by it," Orr said. "I don't want to come off as unsympathetic. I appreciate their frustration. We will continue to review our policy."

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