The War on the NAEP: Another ‘Victory’ For Sequestration

So Matt Di Carlo points us to some depressing news about sequestration and the NAEP, which is used to assess U.S. educational progress:

The 2015 budget estimates by the federal Office of Management and Budget, project a 5 percent cut to the National Assessment of Educational Progress as part of the fallout from the federal sequester cuts…

Because NAEP has to plan assessment contracts several years in advance, the governing board couldn’t wait to find out which potential cuts and raises will stick.

Here are the cuts:

• In the main NAEP, reading and mathematics will be administered as usual, with samples of about 3,000 students per subject, per grade in each state. However, the board will not expand the 12th grade sample in reading, math, or science to allow state-level as well as national results, as it had planned for 2015.
• In addition, main NAEP state samples in science will be cut back to 1,000 per grade, per state, in grades 4 and 8. “That will still allow accurate state-level results in science [in grades 4 and 8], but it will make it difficult to see results for groups [such as by race or English-language proficiency] unless they are very large within the state,” said Lawrence Feinberg, the governing board’s assistant director for reporting and analysis.
• For the Trial Urban District Assessment, which provides detailed results on 21 of the country’s largest school districts, reading and math assessments will go ahead in grades 4 and 8, but science will be cut completely.
• The High School Transcript Study, which helps provide context for national assessment results with information about students’ course-taking, has been suspended “indefinitely.”

Di Carlo (boldface mine):

Two of the “main assessments” – i.e., those administered in math and reading every two years to fourth and eighth graders – get most of the attention in our public debate, and these remain largely untouched by the cuts. But, last May, the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, decided to eliminate the 2014 NAEP exams in civics, history and geography for all but 8th graders (the exams were previously administered in grades 4, 8 and 12). Now, in its most recent announcement, the Board has decided to cancel its plans to expand the sample for 12th graders (in math, reading, and science) to make it large enough to allow state-level results. In addition, the 4th and 8th grade science samples will be cut back, making subgroup breakdowns very difficult, and the science exam will no longer be administered to individual districts. Finally, the “long-term trend NAEP,” which has tracked student performance for 40 years, has been suspended for 2016. These are substantial cutbacks.

Although its results are frequently misinterpreted, NAEP is actually among the few standardized tests in the U.S. that receives rather wide support from all “sides” of the testing debate. And one cannot help but notice the fact that federal and state governments are currently making significant investments in new tests that are used for high-stakes purposes, whereas NAEP, the primary low-stakes assessment, is being scaled back….

But there is a more general issue here, at least from my perspective, and it pertains to the erosion of public research and knowledge funding. We’re about to see substantial cuts to federal research and development funding, such as that from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Public libraries are being closed all over the nation. There was even an attempt to eliminate the American Community Survey, a vital national survey of U.S. households that provides a range of data unavailable from other sources.

Supporters of public R&D investment often oppose these cutbacks by appealing to cost effectiveness, international competitiveness or national security. These are important arguments, but my personal reaction is a bit more visceral and less pragmatic – scaling back basic public investment in research and data are signs of a nation in decline.

On the specifics, the suspension of the long-term trends is foolish, though probably expected, since no one ever wants to hear that U.S. students have made steady and consistent educational gains over the last forty years–if the data are politically incorrect, then don’t collect the data.

This is incredibly short-sighted, and it’s happening only because too many of our political betters, within and without government, do not understand that we can’t run out of money. And it strains credulity to think that restoring $5 – $6 million out of an annual budget of trillions will somehow lead to runaway inflation or a devastating misallocation of resources.

And the congregation responds: This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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