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NAEP And Public Investment In Knowledge

As reported over at Education Week, the so-called “sequester” has claimed yet another victim: The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. As most people who follow education know, this highly respected test, which is often called the “nation’s report card," is a very useful means of assessing student performance, both in any given year and over time.

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.

Granted, few federal departments were spared the negative impact of the sequester, and it was specifically designed to result in cuts that would be unacceptable to both political parties (why these cuts occurred anyway is, of course, beyond the scope of this post).

Nevertheless, we are now going to be getting much less information about student performance from low-stakes exams, and much more from assessments with stakes attached. As we discussed last week, this is important, as attaching rewards and consequences to tests can influence their results.

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.

To be sure, governments still spend a great deal of money on R&D, and the total amount has been increasing over the past few decades (though not as a share of GDP). Moreover, not all funding of this type need be public – there is absolutely a big role for the private sector as well.

That said, while I fully acknowledge that my feelings on this matter are biased due to my background and political views, it seems to me that public investment in endeavors such as monitoring students’ knowledge of civics and science or collecting basic data on citizens’ social and economic circumstances is worthwhile for its own sake.

It’s just something that advanced civilizations know they need to do – an acknowledgement that good information is a prerequisite for good decision making.

- Matt Di Carlo

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I'm a wonky guy, too, so I tend to embrace investments like NAEP. Could I inqurire...would you publicly advocate to preserve NAEP spending by finding other cuts -- like cutting Title I? I'm no political wizard, but it seems to me if Shanker Institute valued research so much that it advocated for fewer teachers and aides to offset a research investment, that argument might get political traction.

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