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Math Achievement Levels Questioned

October 1, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Researchers charged Tuesday that political pressure skewed the release of a national math-achievement assessment they said was too negative. Members of the House Education Committee asked for an investigation.

The assessment, known as the Nation’s Report Card, was issued a day earlier indicating that American school children can do little more than simple calculations.

That goes too far, said Richard M. Jaeger, who was part of a research team that was fired when it prepared a critical evaluation of the achievement levels.

″The administration wants to convince the public that public schools are failing″ to win more support for President Bush’s proposals to direct federal funds to children who want to attend private schools, contended Jaeger, who is director of the Center for Educational Research and Evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro,

The report was defended by Roy Truby, executive director of the board of the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress.

″The board believes these are strong, defensible levels of achievement that were set by a reasonable process,″ he said.

Assessment board member Michael Glode said, ″One of the reasons that we decided to fire the evaluation team is they didn’t evaluate the levels; they got to evaluating the secretary, the Department of Education and the board itself.″

Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Education Committee, William D. Ford, D-Mich., and panel member Dale E. Kildee, R-Mich., asked the General Accounting Office to review the procedures that established a three-tier standard in mathematics for the report card measuring results of 1990 tests.

The congressmen asked for the investigation because ″we felt it was important to get an objective point of view,″ said John F. Jennings, a committee aide.

″When we saw that these respected testing experts had a written report saying the governing board was disregarding advice, we felt this should be investigated,″ said Jennings.

Jaeger said the data were ″sufficiently suspect and flawed, and that they did not warrant the kind of release and the kind of adoption by the National Education Goals Panel that they received.″

The goals panel, which is following up the 1989 education summit between Bush and the nation’s governors, incorporated information from the mathematics achievement levels in its report on how the nation and individual states are progressing toward six education goals set by Bush and the governors. Both reports were released Monday, as well as a 20-year trend report from the Education Department.

The researchers’ complaints about the achievement levels are mainly technical and focus on the ways the governing board of the national assessment measured pupils’ competency in math. They added there should have been a greater number of technical experts analyzing the process.

But Jaeger couched his objections in political terms.

″There are a variety of political forces at work here,″ he said, noting the passage of the second anniversary of the Charlottesville, Va., education summit. ″There was tremendous pressure to show that something came out of that meeting,″ he said.

Jaeger said that more properly prepared testing and analysis could show greater gains for America’s children and that ″the kind of gross condemnation of the mathematics performance of American students on the basis of these results is just unworthy.″

Truby, the assessment board’s executive director, said, ″We’ve always felt that this first effort to define achievement levels was a trial. We’re doing it in 1992 with a somewhat different procedure.″

″Whenever you try something new, you have to expect some criticism. Setting standards is always a matter of judgement not rocket science,″ he added.

The math report said just over 60 percent of children in grades four, eight and 12 can perform simple math problems using basic skills. It said that less than 20 percent of those in the three grades can tackle solid grade-level work and that 1 percent or less of the fourth- and eighth-graders, and 2.6 percent of high school seniors can do advanced work.

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