Student Testing:

Issues Related to Voluntary National Mathematics and Reading Tests

HEHS-98-163: Published: Jun 18, 1998. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Education's plan to develop voluntary national tests for fourth grade reading and eighth grade mathematics, focusing on: (1) the relationship between the National Assessment Governing Board and Education; (2) costs of developing the national voluntary tests and procedures for hiring contractors; and (3) possible explanations for the differences in scores on state achievement tests and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

GAO noted that: (1) since 1992, the Governing Board and Education have operated under a Memorandum of Understanding based on NAEP's authorizing legislation and designed to ensure the Governing Board's independence from its parent agency in fulfilling its responsibilities for NAEP; (2) in accordance with this memorandum, the Governing Board establishes program policies and standards, oversees contracts to develop test specifications, makes its own personnel decisions, obligates funds, and awards contracts; (3) because they share responsibilities for the program, however, Education and the Governing Board collaborate extensively; (4) although the Governing Board helps in developing Education's budget request for NAEP-related work, Education has final authority over the request forwarded to the Office of Management and Budget; (5) when Congress gave the Governing Board exclusive authority for the voluntary national test development contract in November 1997, it also altered the relationship between the Governing Board and Education regarding this contract; (6) because it now had exclusive authority for this development contract, the Governing Board used no Education assistance in reviewing the contract as it had typically done for NAEP-related contracts; (7) as a result of its review, the Governing Board substantially changed the test development contract; (8) another modification specified that the Governing Board, not Education, would make all policy decisions as specified in the original contract; (9) nor did the Governing Board help in developing Education's budget request for voluntary national test development funds; (10) on reviewing the Governing Board's test development contract, GAO estimated that the cost to the federal government for developing one complete set of these tests would be $15 million; (11) the cost of implementing the fourth grade reading and eighth grade mathematics testing program has been estimated at up to $96 million if all fourth and eighth grade students in the public and private schools participated; (12) most explanations of the differences in scores on the NAEP and state achievement tests fell into three main categories: (a) differences in how the tests define proficiency; (b) differences in the kinds of tests administered; and (c) differences in students taking the test and when they take it; and (13) NAEP, for example, tests students with disabilities or limited-English proficiency; some states may not.

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