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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2002

Opt-out clause for national tests may skew results

BY JANE ELIZABETH
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Parents and educators who believe children take too many tests weren't too pleased when President Bush's new education bill required all students to participate in another one - a national test known as NAEP.

But a last-minute provision quietly inserted into the bill by an Ohio congressman will allow students to walk away from the test, literally. And they can refuse to answer any questions that, for whatever reason, are not to their liking.

The federal education bill, signed into law last month by President Bush, asks all states to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Often called the “nation's report card,” the test results are used to determine how well the country's students are learning reading, writing, math, and science.

Such testing was one of the most controversial issues during the federal education bill debate. So to ensure its passage, Rep. John A Boehner (R., Ohio) slipped in three sentences that primarily say:

1) No one can be forced to take the test.

2) Students can be excused from the test for any reason.

3) Even students who are taking the test can skip any test questions.

“The education bill includes a host of safeguards that are meant to ensure that NAEP remains a limited test that is focused strictly on basic academics,” said Heather Valentine, spokeswoman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which Mr. Boehner heads.

Ms. Valentine said, “This and many other safeguards were included and helped to ensure a strong bipartisan vote for the final bill.”

It may have helped to ensure the bill's passage, but testing experts don't know if it will ensure an accurate picture of how the nation's students are faring.

Because the tests are given to a scientifically selected sample of students, a rash of refusals could damage its credibility.

“It's going to be more complex” to score the tests, said Walt Haney, a director of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Public Policy at Boston College.

“It would become problematic if there were particular kinds of students or students from particular regions of the country who decided not to take the test,” said Mr. Haney, who wasn't aware that the opt-out clause had been added to the bill.

Shula Nedley, testing officer for the Pittsburgh city school district, said it's difficult to determine what percentage of no-shows would skew the results. “But I would say if 10 percent of the kids opt out, it puts those results in question,” Ms. Nedley said.

“It could make the NAEP data questionable.”

Ms. Valentine maintained that Mr. Boehner's language “simply clarifies what we understand current practice is” - that no one is forced to take the tests, or other such tests.

But in Pennsylvania, the state legislature in the summer approved a bill making the test mandatory for any school asked to participate. Pennsylvania hadn't been able to get enough schools to participate to obtain statewide scores since 1996, giving it the distinction of being the nation's biggest holdout state. in the country.

Now that state law conflicts with federal law, it's unclear what happens next. Officials at the state Department of Education didn't have an immediate answer.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Jane Elizabeth is an education writer for the Post-Gazette.



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