Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The NAEP is still a standardized test we should rely on


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Chester E. Finn Jr., known as Checker, is 77. His first contact with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as our nation’s report card, goes way back to 1969. That was when he received an office visitor who wanted to discuss NAEP, pronounced “nape.”

Finn was 25. He had a desk in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington. He had graduated from college four years before with a degree in history. He also had a master’s degree in social studies teaching, an indication of how early he acquired his lifelong obsession with schools in America. He has done enough since to be called our nation’s education expert.

In his latest book, “Assessing the Nation’s Report Card: Challenges and Choices for NAEP,” Finn provides a much-needed appreciation of those federally funded-and-managed exams that periodically sample the progress of about 5,000 children per state. He thinks NAEP is the most important testing program in the country but worries it could be blown away by the ideological winds rattling schoolhouse windows these days.

NAEP is an old but solid anchor in any debate over whether our schools are going to hell. Senior citizens I know often take a pessimistic view. They tend to remember their school days fondly and overlook the fact that schools then weren’t teaching as much to as many different kids, particularly those with disabilities, as they do now.

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The most recent NAEP summary of reading progress indicates that, over the long term, we are not falling back: “The percentage of fourth-grade students performing at or above NAEP Proficient in 2019 was higher in comparison to a decade ago, as well as to 1998 and 1992. The percentage of eighth-graders performing at or above NAEP Proficient in 2019 was not significantly different from a decade ago or from 1998, but was higher in comparison to 1992.”

I suspect Finn, a careful optimist, may mention NAEP data when he runs into feverish pessimists at parties. He first went deep into the realities of federal support for education when his graduate school mentor, Daniel P. Moynihan, became a key adviser to President Richard M. Nixon and took Finn with him to Washington.

That visitor who told Finn about NAEP was the executive director of the Education Commission of the States. He wanted the well-placed kid to know the project needed more money. Finn went on to get an Ed.D. in educational policy and become a much-quoted sage as professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, U.S. assistant secretary of education, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and several other assignments.

This is his 24th book. It is full of bureaucratic history and would be a heavy slog except that Finn is a gifted writer who spotlights the most interesting stuff, like the recurring battle over NAEP’s long-term trend assessment. Some people don’t like measuring today’s schools the same way we did in 1992. Finn disagrees. Having some legitimate way to compare our schools to the past “is NAEP’s single most valuable function and solemn responsibility,” he said.

Looking back at old data “is certain to raise concerns as curricular emphases, education reform priorities, and testing technologies evolve over time,” he said. “How informative are assessment results in 2025, say, if they’re based on what was being taught in American schools at the turn of the century? … On the other hand, how valuable are 2025 results on a measure like NAEP if they cannot be compared with previous results? Is achievement improving or not, and for which kids?’

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He quotes Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk pointing out that “the exam’s technical properties make it difficult to use NAEP data to prove cause-and-effect claims about specific policies or instructional interventions,” even though distinguished experts use the results that way all the time. It is not uncommon to see enraged debaters hurling NAEP data at each other.

Not everyone likes government officials pointing out achievement gaps between different ethnicities, Finn said, “at least not unless it’s accompanied by causal explanations and — more important — remedies for the situation.” NAEP people consider that beyond their instructions. NAEP results can illuminate knowledge and skills in certain subjects that groups of students might have, Finn said, but “they’re not good at gauging creativity, motivation, grit, research prowess, or one’s ability to work with others.”

Even worse, legislators and regulators keep messing with vital data. The correlation between academic achievement and socioeconomic status as measured by the percentage of students eligible for lunch subsidies has been a favorite topic of NAEP consumers like me. Finn informs us that “beginning in 2010 … and nationally implemented in 2015, the ‘community eligibility’ feature enables high-poverty schools to supply free meals to all their pupils regardless of individual poverty status.”

There are NAEP exams in reading, math, science, writing, arts and civics.

Politicians and other special interests will still misrepresent the results. But as we try to comprehend our schools’ progress, there is no better measure than that obscure testing project Finn first heard about 53 years ago.

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