ERIC Identifier: ED458214
Publication Date: 2001-04-00
Author: Boston, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Assessment and Evaluation Washington DC.
The Debate over National Testing. ERIC Digest.
Most teachers are comfortable with developing and using tests for classroom
purposes, whether to see how much students have learned, to provide a basis for
grades, or to gain an understanding of individual students' strengths and
weaknesses. As state departments of education move forward with their testing
programs, teachers are becoming increasingly familiar with tests used as
measures of accountability. A third layer of testing arises on the national
level and includes the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and
President Bush's plan to require states to test third- through eighth-grade
students in Title I schools annually in reading and mathematics, with state
results verified against NAEP or a commercial test such as the Iowa Test of
This Digest presents various views of the federal role in testing and offers
a brief examination of NAEP, "the nation's report card," in both its national
sample format and its state administration, which critics fear has the potential
to become a de facto national test if it is selected as the basis for comparing
state tests. It also suggests action steps and resources to enable teachers to
take part in the ongoing debate about testing.
The United States, unlike many other countries, has no national test that
every student in every state takes to demonstrate mastery of some agreed-upon
body of knowledge and skills. Commercial test publishers have long offered
achievement tests (e.g., the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the California
Achievement Test, the Terra Nova) that are administered to schools across the
country and normalized on national samples, but these are not in themselves
national tests because individual schools, districts, or states decide for
themselves whether to use them and which to select. The SAT is probably the most
common test administered in the country, but it is intended to measure
college-bound students' aptitude for college work, not academic achievement
across a wide range of subjects for all students. And it has the ACT as
The question of the appropriate role for the federal government to play in
testing is a complicated one, and like many policy matters, it has strong
political overtones. Over the past two decades, many policymakers have moved
from an initial position of strong support for some sort of a national test used
as an accountability tool to opposition on the grounds that a national test
would usher in a national curriculum and lead to further federal involvement in
what has historically been a state and local matter. These policymakers want
states to establish administer their own standards and assessments without
interference from Washington; they see federal involvement in testing as a
sometimes unwelcome effort to dictate what is important for their students to
On the other hand, some policymakers seem to be less troubled by an expanded
federal role in testing, but more suspicious about whether nationwide testing
would lead to genuine school improvement and higher student achievement or just
sort out and penalize low-performing schools and the students in them, who are
disproportionately low income and minority. They argue that until there is truly
equal opportunity to learn for all students (with equal access to technology,
highly qualified teachers, good facilities, and other learning inputs), testing
is an empty exercise. Some policymakers also fear that poor test scores might
fuel discontent with the public school system and lead to more support for
controversial initiatives such as vouchers for private school aid.
Federally mandated testing also raises a variety of practical and technical
questions, including the following:
Who will pay the considerable cost of developing and administering additional
Do states have the technical expertise and personnel to conduct another
large-scale assessment and analyze and report results?
Will the tests be valid and will scores be reliable for high-stakes purposes
such as making decisions about which schools receive financial incentives and
which are sanctioned for low performance?
How will existing state tests be linked to each other or to "yardsticks" such as
NAEP or commercial tests so that student and school progress can be measured
fairly and accurately, particularly if rewards and sanctions are tied to
NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS
Assessment of Educational Progress, nicknamed "the nation's report card," is a
32-year-old congressionally mandated project of the National Center for
Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education. The NAEP
assessment is administered annually by NCES to a nationally representative
sample of public and private school students in grades 4, 8, and 12 to get a
picture of what American children know and can do. NAEP results are usually
watched closely because the assessment is considered a highly respected,
technically sound longitudinal measure of U.S. student achievement.
Two subject areas are typically assessed each year. Reading, mathematics,
writing, and science are assessed most frequently, usually at 4-year intervals
so that trends can be monitored Civics, U.S. history, geography, and the arts
have also been assessed in recent years, and foreign language will be assessed
for the first time in 2003. Once exclusively multiple choice, NAEP now includes
performance-based items that call for students to work with science kits, use
calculators, prepare writing samples, and create art projects.
Students in participating schools are randomly selected to take one portion
of the assessment being administered in a given year (usually administered
during a 1-1/2 to 2-hour testing period). Achievement is reported at one of
three levels: Basic, for partial mastery; Proficient, for solid academic
performance; and Advanced, for superior work. A forth level, Below Basic,
indicates less-than-acceptable performance. Individual student, school, and
district data are not reported.
To help states measure students' academic performance over time and to allow
for cross-state comparisons, a voluntary state component was added to NAEP in
1990. As of this writing, legislators are considering expanding the role of
state NAEP to serve as a check on results from states' annual testing of third
through eight graders called for under the Bush education plan. This could mean
annual state NAEP testing in reading and mathematics (as opposed to once every
four years) for a sample of students in grades four and eight in each state.
A 26-member independent board called the National Assessment Governing Board
(NAGB) is responsible for setting NAEP policy, selecting which subject areas
will be assessed, and overseeing the content and design of each NAEP assessment.
NAGB does not attempt to specify a national curriculum, but rather, outlines
what a national assessment should test, based on a national consensus process
that involves gathering input from teachers, curriculum experts, policymakers,
the business community, and the public.
TESTS, TESTS EVERYWHERE
While almost every state has
implemented some sort of state testing program, the differences in what they
measure, how they measure it, and how they set achievement levels make it
virtually impossible to conduct meaningful state-by-state comparisons of
individual student performance. Some people believe state-to-state comparisons
are irrelevant because education is a state and local function. Others believe
cross-state comparisons will help are important to ensure spur reform and ensure
uniformly high-quality education across the country.
Legislation being debated now calls for the use of NAEP or another nationally
administered test as a check on the results of annual state tests.
Theoretically, a state-level NAEP would yield useful data. In reality, however,
NAEP state-level results have sometimes been confusing because achievement
levels of students generally appear to be much lower on NAEP than on the state
tests. This discrepancy may be attributed to a number of factors, including the
State tests are more likely to be aligned with state curricula than NAEP is.
State tests and NAEP use different definitions of proficiency.
State tests and NAEP may use different formats.
State tests and NAEP differ in terms of who takes them (e.g., whether students
in special education or with limited English proficiency are included).
In general, fewer students are judged to reach the Proficient standard on the
NAEP reading and math tests than on state tests (GAO, 1998). This discrepancy
can lead people who are not aware of the differences in the two types of tests
to question the validity of their own state testing programs or the desirability
of participating in a federal one. Using the results of any other nationally
normalized standardized test poses the same difficulty.
It is difficult to predict how the national testing issue will ultimately be
resolved. President Bush's plan calls for expanding testing in most states and
gives NAEP and commercial tests a more prominent role than they currently have.
Teachers might be torn between continuing to teach the curriculum aligned with
their state assessment or switching gears to focus on whatever other test is
being used to determine rewards and sanctions. Given the classroom implications
of expanded testing, it makes sense for teachers to stay active in the
Barton, P. E. (1999). Too Much Testing of the
Wrong Kind; Too Little of the Right Kind in K-12 Education. A Policy Information
Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. ED 430 052.
Davey, L. (1992). The case for a national test. Practical Assessment,
Research & Evaluation, 3 (1). [Available online:
Davey, Lynn & Neill, Monty (1991). The case against a national test.
Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2(10). [Available online:
General Accounting Office (1998). Student Testing: Issues Related to
Voluntary National Mathematics and Reading Tests. Report to the Honorable
William F. Goodling, Chairman, Committee on Education and the Workforce, House
of Representatives, and the Honorable John Ashcroft, U.S. Senate. Washington,
DC: Author. ED 423 244.
National Center for Education Statistics (November 1999). The NAEP Guide: A
Description of the Content and Methods of the 1999 and 2000 Assessments.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.