NAEP Becoming an Offer States Can’t Refuse

Published June 1, 2000

WASHINGTON–Proponents of limited government long have warned that the advent of national testing of schoolchildren would result in a national curriculum dictated by the federal government and a corresponding loss of state sovereignty. Republicans hotly opposed and blocked President Clinton’s 1997 plan to launch national testing in math and reading.

Nevertheless, in 2000, both major-party Presidential hopefuls–Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore–have endorsed in principle the idea of upgrading the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to a high-stakes measuring rod for distributing financial rewards to states that meet accountability standards. That would be a big change for NAEP, which for the past 30 years has been a no-stakes barometer of the knowledge American children have acquired during their school years.

Making NAEP a de facto national test would have dramatic implications. A federal assessment linked to monetary rewards could substantially shape what goes on in local classrooms. Would the emphasis be on core knowledge or on critical thinking about sociopolitical issues? That would no longer be a local decision.

In addition, there would be questions of comparability. States like Kentucky, Maryland, and Connecticut got big boosts in their 1998 NAEP reading scores because they had excluded many more disabled students from the testing than in previous years. Federal officials would have to ensure a level playing field and guard against cheating right down to the classroom level.

But, with hardly any debate, a startlingly broad political consensus has formed behind a high-impact NAEP. Here are its basic elements:

  • In his State of the Union message in January, President Clinton proposed a Recognition and Reward program using NAEP results, beginning with math in 2000 and then expanding to other subjects in the future. He asked for $50 million for the first year. Administration officials said 35 states that participated fully in the 1996 and 2000 rounds of NAEP would be eligible; they predicted only about 10 states would qualify for bonuses.
  • Vice President Gore echoed the Clinton plan in a campaign statement. Gore said he “will challenge all states to institute a high school exit exam and provide incentives to reward those states that adopt these tests. . . . The Gore plan will also provide states a bonus for improved student achievement measured by NAEP.”
  • Texas Governor Bush, who has made accountability for results in education a major theme of his campaign, has called for an Achievement in Education Fund federally financed to the tune of $500 million over five years. It would “reward states that demonstrate substantial and valid progress on state assessments, as verified by NAEP.” Bush views this as nothing less than a redefinition of the relationship between states and the federal government–“granting freedom from regulation in exchange for results.”

Under the Bush plan, all states taking federal education aid would be required to establish their own annual assessments in “at least grades 3-8 in reading and math.” As an auditing measure, Washington would pay for the states to take part in an annual NAEP sample exam for students in grades 4 and 8 in reading and math. In a bow toward states’ rights, Bush would allow a state to use its own NAEP-equivalent test, but at its own expense. Given that no NAEP-equivalent test exists, and that it would be very expensive to create one, there’s little doubt all states would fall in line under the Bush assessment plan.

In a punitive twist absent from the Clinton/Gore plans, Bush would strip the administrative portion of federal funding–the 5 percent for state education agencies–from states failing to show results within five years. Federal officials would re-direct those funds to charter schools.

  • Finally, the most expensive NAEP plan of all is contained in a version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization approved by the GOP-controlled Senate Education Committee on a 10-8 party-line vote in March. It calls for a Performance Bonus Fund of $2.5 billion. This would dispense bonuses to states that raise overall achievement or reduce the learning gap between low-income and better-off students. It would use NAEP results in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, beginning in 2002. Like the Bush plan, it would allow states to use an alternative NAEP-like instrument, but in fact none exists.

Putting a fair and respected testing system in place would be a major challenge for the nonpartisan National Assessment Governing Board, which has tried to steer NAEP free of political shoals. Already opposition is spreading to high-stakes testing by states. Superimposed as another federal mandate, NAEP could encounter organized boycotts or over-tested students’ refusal to try. Without public acceptance and widespread compliance, federal requirements tied to categorical aid can flop, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and the 55-mph speed limit in the 1990s.

Robert Holland, a contributing editor to School Reform News, is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].