a division of Home School Legal Defense Association
April 1, 2002

National Assessment Education Progress:
Precursor to a National Test


In 1997 and 1998, Home School Legal Defense Association battled a proposal by President Clinton to create and implement a national standardized test. HSLDA believes that such a test is hazardous because it would logically lead to a national curriculum.

The purpose of a test is to find out what students have learned and how well they have learned it. What would be the point of testing on something that hasn't been taught?

By creating a national test, the federal government would by default create a national curriculum. State and local policy makers want to improve their student test scores to earn bragging rights come election time. Local education policies would be developed to help students score higher on the national test. Over time, all states would end up teaching to the test--using the same "national curriculum." Clearly, a national test is a dangerous social engineering tool in the hands of government.

Thankfully, after an outpouring of opposition from homeschoolers and others, Clinton's proposed national test was defeated and permanently banned. However, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), although not a comprehensive individual test like President Clinton's proposal, is another nationally administered test that may result in a national curriculum.

Most recently, conservatives and pro-family groups have showed much confusion, concern, and anxiety over President Bush's proposal to use NAEP as a verification test for state assessments. His proposal rewards or sanctions states by giving or withholding federal funds based upon the academic performance of their schools on their individual state's standardized tests. These performance levels will be "verified" using the NAEP test. Ultimately, the states NAEP test scores will determine the flow of federal education dollars.

Is this an appropriate use of NAEP? Will it turn into a national test? Are there alternatives? Will this expand the federal role in education? These and many other questions demand answers. Understanding the NAEP test and its components will lend insight into the matter.

What is the NAEP?

"The Nation's Report Card," as NAEP is often called, is the only national representation of continuing assessment of what America's students know. The original NAEP was developed in the mid 1960s and has been conducted periodically in reading, mathematics, science, writing and other subjects since 1969. Policy makers at the local, state, and national level use NAEP to evaluate the nation's condition and progress in education.

Currently, NAEP does not provide information about a particular school or student's performance. Instead, it's designed to give a general, overall picture of the levels of skill and knowledge among students nationwide or in a particular state. Consequently, under existing law and in its current form, NAEP cannot show whether a particular student is reading proficiently or how his or her school compares to other schools.

NAEP provides a database on educational performance and student background. The data collected from NAEP tests include: teacher qualifications, socioeconomic status, computer usage, hours spent watching television, reading habits, and demographic and school information. The purpose behind this abundance of data is to isolate various factors that correlate to higher achievement. One data example would be to show how a student's score correlates with the number of reading materials in the home.

The NAEP Test Explained

Two forms of the NAEP test exist: the National Assessment and the State Assessment.

The National Assessment NAEP is administered using two samples: the "Main" NAEP and the "Long-term" NAEP. These different assessments use distinct data collection procedures, separate samples of students, and differing test instruments, and their results are reported separately. Tests are administered in public and private schools every two years. Each test is given to a sample of at least 120,000 students in either grades 4, 8, or 12. The subjects tested vary from year to year but since 1969 have included math, science, civics, history, reading, writing, geography, computer competence, literature, art, music, consumer skills, basic life skills, healthcare and occupational development, and social studies.

The State NAEP was developed to give states detailed information about their progress to assist efforts in educational improvement. Historically, the NAEP was reported only on the nation as a whole and compared in four geographic regions of the country. The state NAEP allows states to compare their scores with other states and to the national average. States voluntarily participate in the state assessment and assume the responsibilities of administrating the test. In 2000, 41 states voluntarily participated in the State NAEP testing program. However, some states (e.g. Pennsylvania) give local school districts the option to test or not test. Consequently, these states often do not have the appropriate number of students to yield a statistically accurate survey. The only way to ensure such accuracy would be to mandate schools selected for the survey to administer the test without exception.

History of the NAEP

In 1963, the U.S. Commissioner of Education proposed a national test that would assess the development of America's students on a state and local level. This proposal met tremendous resistance because many opponents felt it would negatively influence state and local education policymaking and undermine the authority of states over education. This opposition forced the commissioner to reduce his initiative from testing every child to only a national sampling.

NAEP officially began operating in 1969, funded primarily through a private grant. By 1971, NAEP was completely funded by the U.S. Office of Education (USOE) and has been funded with taxpayer dollars ever since.

Oversight of NAEP has changed significantly since its inception. In 1968, the Education Commission of the State (ECS), a national, nonprofit organization that helps education officials and others develop policies to improve student learning, was assigned the oversight of NAEP. The ECS autonomy over NAEP was maintained until the mid 1970's when Congress pressed for budget cuts and NAEP funding converted from a grant to a contract. Consequently, the USOE began playing a major oversight role in NAEP. In 1978, Congress gave complete oversight to the National Institute of Education (NIE).

The release of the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" catapulted education reform into the national spotlight, generating a tremendous amount of NAEP activity throughout the rest of the 80's. In 1984, Secretary of Education Terrell Bell began using an annual large wall chart to display the comparative educational progress for each state. Proponents argued that this state-by-state comparison filled a void in statistical knowledge, enabling states and their residents to gauge for the first time the quality of their education--validating the expansion of NAEP to a state test in order to hold local schools accountable for education.

In 1986, eight southern states embarked on a three-year test sample of their students using NAEP reading and/or writing achievement tests. Arkansas' then Governor Bill Clinton helped lead this venture, stating that comparing student achievement to a national norm would stimulate "competition in the best sense" and encourage school improvement. He carried this philosophy into his presidency, where he pushed Congress to adopt a national test.

In May of 1986, Education Secretary William Bennett formed a 22-member NAEP study group that included Hillary Rodham Clinton and was chaired by Lamar Alexander. The group report acknowledged the importance of NAEP but criticized the lack of state-level NAEP data. In addition, their study questioned the narrow range of subjects that NAEP was covering and encouraged policy makers to broaden the subjects tested.

By 1988, Congress undertook a major overhaul of NAEP. After a great deal of negotiation on both sides of the aisle, Congress passed legislation creating the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) to formulate the policy guidelines for the NAEP. Development oversight was given to the newly formed National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In addition, a trial state-level test was authorized, allowing states to voluntarily administer a statewide NAEP in mathematics and reading. Since then, NAGB has expanded the subjects tested by the state NAEP.

Trial state tests were administered in 1990, 1992, and 1994. By 1996, the state NAEP became a permanent test to be administered every year in states that requested it.

NAGB—The NAEP Governing Board

Today, the National Assessment Governing Board is responsible for administering NAEP. Proscribed by law, this board is comprised of 26 members that include governors, state legislators, local and state school officials, educators, business representatives, and members of the public. Interest groups represented by the board make board recommendations to the Secretary of Education, who then appoints each member for a three-year term; each member can serve no more than two terms.

Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 authorizes NAGB "to develop assessment objectives and test specifications through a national consensus approach which includes the active participation of teachers, curriculum specialties, local school administrators, parents and concerned members of the public."

Public Law 103-382, the NAEP authorizing statute, has language to hinder a national test and protect individual student privacy. The public does have access to data, questions, and test instruments.

Problems with NAEP

The use of NAEP has continually expanded over its 30-year existence. These expansions have led to more spending and opened the door to greater government influence over education with less input from parents, states, and local communities. Furthermore, added testing does not produce smarter students. Congressman Bill Goodling (PA-19) pointed out the fallacy of testing with his analogy that cattle are not made fatter by weighing them all the time. The NAEP test has grown far beyond its original intent and is in desperate need of reform. Mandatory use of the NAEP as an oversight tool on the states would astronomically expand the use of NAEP and further entrench the federal "big brother" system. Below, HSLDA lists several problems with NAEP in its current form, difficulties with NAEP in the Bush proposal, and several suggestions for fixing these problems.

  1. Federal Involvement in Education is Unconstitutional

    The tenth amendment to the United States Constitution reads, "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Neither the power to test nor the power to oversee education is enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, should be a decision left to the states. Under this light, congressional approval and spending on NAEP is unconstitutional.

  2. By Default, the State NAEP is Creating a National Curriculum

    What gets tested, gets taught. The two cannot be separated without a decline in test scores. For example, the ability of an 8th grade teacher whose students are not performing well on their exams may be called into question, especially if an 8th grade teacher in a neighboring school is turning out students with higher test scores. Whether or not one teacher is truly better than the other will probably never be addressed. Rather, the teacher with the under-performing students will receive pressure to raise her student's scores.

    The same scenario plays out when an identical test is given to schools in two different states. If one state performs better than the other, the under-performing state begins to question its teachers and its curriculum. In addition, the voters put pressure on their elected officials to remedy this disparity with fresh education reform policies. This results in new curriculum intended to improve test scores. In short, a national curriculum begins to evolve as more and more states jump on the curriculum reform bandwagon.

    The net effect of the Bush proposal may indeed create a default national curriculum. If states are rewarded or punished by consequence of their NAEP scores, then they will teach to the test in order to raise those scores and receive the federal dollars for doing so.

    NAEP should be limited to its original objective by eliminating the state NAEP test and administering only the national NAEP test. Presently, 49 states have participated in the state NAEP.

  3. The Subjects Tested By NAEP Should Be Limited to the Essentials: Reading, Writing and Math

    The disciplines tested by NAEP have grown from just four subjects in 1969-reading, writing, math and science-to include history, civics, arts, economics, and numerous other subjects. These new categories go beyond just mechanics or basics and invade value-laden judgments that are beyond the scope of federal concern.

    The purpose of NAEP should be to give the nation a report card on the overall educational achievement of America's students. Expanding the subjects tested beyond the 3 R's incurs unnecessary expense and goes beyond the original intent of NAEP.

  4. Separate NAEP From the Department of Education

    The Secretary of Education appoints members of NAGB. Certain aspects of the implementation of NAEP and the development of performance levels are handled through a partnership between NAGB and the U.S. Department of Education.

    This structure leaves NAGB vulnerable to political influences and the pressure of teacher unions. HSLDA urges Congress to completely separate NAEP and NAGB from the U.S. Department of Education. One way to do this is to completely privatize the NAEP test; another would be to eliminate the Secretary of Education's role and give Congress the sole power to appoint NAGB members.

  5. Cost to Administer NAEP Should be Reduced, Not Increased

    The Bush plan calls for the administration of the NAEP every year and annual posting of results. Under current practice, it takes 18 months for the results of NAEP to be released. This new accelerated reporting time would increase the cost of NAEP from $40 million to $110 million. It is estimated that each NAEP test will cost an average of $100 to administer-20 times more than it takes to administer a private tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

    If Congress requires that states test their public school students using the NAEP, they will significantly burden the taxpayer while restricting the rights of states and local communities to decide the best testing methods for their students. A better alternative would be to allow states to chose a nationally normed test in lieu of the NAEP.

  6. The Privacy of Students Who Take the NAEP and the Privacy of Their Families

    While NAGB has expanded the use of NAEP, it has also expanded the questionnaire students are required to complete before taking the test. Presently, information on race, gender, language spoken in the home, homework habits, participation in federal programs for disadvantaged, and experience with the subject area are requested from students. Recommendations have been made to include (among others) family income, parental occupation, and post-secondary education plans.

    Such background questions raise many privacy concerns and are minimally useful for analysis purposes. This invasion of student's privacy must stop. Background information should be reduced in order to make NAEP more cost efficient and enable a quicker turnaround time of publishing the test scores.

    The law is unclear on whether or not NAGB is authorized to keep a database of individual students' scores and personal data open to the public. America's students deserve to be protected by a specific prohibition against NAGB's collecting individual students' personal data.

HSLDA continues to work with Congress and the White House on these issues of concern and strive to reduce the federal role in education.

2002 Update on the NAEP

Final language in the ESA Education bill for 2001 (H.R. 1) established the following:

  • The use of assessment items and data on any assessment to rank, compare, or otherwise evaluate individual students or teachers is prohibited.

  • The use of assessment items and data on any assessment to provide rewards or sanctions for individual students, teachers, schools or local educational agencies is prohibited.

  • The use of the NAEP to establish, require, or influence the standards, assessments, curriculum, including lesson plans, textbooks, or classroom materials, or instructional practices of states or local educational agencies is prohibited.

  • The use of any assessment authorized for student promotion or graduation purposes is prohibited.

  • The required use of NAEP for homeschools is prohibited, regardless of whether or not the homeschool is treated as a homeschool or a private school under state law.

  • Homeschooled student cannot be required to participate in any assessment referenced or authorized in this Act.

  • All participation is voluntary. The parents of children selected to participate in any assessment shall be informed before the administration of any authorized assessment, and their child may be excused from participation for any reason. No child is required to finish any authorized assessment and is not required to answer any test question.