National test to rank Florida kids

By Ron Matus
Published January 23, 2007

By now, everybody knows what the FCAT is. But increasingly, there's another four-letter test to remember.

Beginning next week, about 15,000 fourth- and eighth-graders in Florida will be among more than 1-million students nationwide taking this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

They were selected at random. And they won't ever know their individual scores. But their collective performance will give policymakers a good idea of how well Florida stacks up against other states and whether the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is an accurate measure of learning gains.

"If many of a state's students are passing the state exam but not reaching the NAEP basic level, then something's wrong," said Alan Richard, spokesman for the Southern Regional Education Board, which counts Florida and 15 other states as members.

The NAEP (pronounced "nape") is often called "the nation's report card." Researchers have called it the "gold standard" and a "national barometer" for measuring a state's academic success. The New York Times says it's the "strongest, most well-respected test in the country."

So respected, in fact, that some federal lawmakers want states to use the NAEP to benchmark their own tests.

In many states, there are big discrepancies between how students perform on the state test and how well they do on the NAEP. In Alabama, for example, 53 percent of fourth-graders scored at basic or above on the most recent NAEP, in 2005. But that same year, 83 percent of them passed the state test.

Some observers accuse states of watering down their tests to give a false impression of progress and to avoid federal penalties under the No Child Left Behind Act. The law essentially allows states to use their own tests to determine whether they're successfully meeting federal goals.

Florida, so far, is not one of those states.

Elementary students in Florida showed big gains on the FCAT during the two terms of Gov. Jeb Bush. They also showed correspondingly big gains on the NAEP.

Some critics say higher FCAT scores result from "teaching to the test," meaning the gains were more because of test preparation than real learning. But because teachers don't know what's on the NAEP and don't directly prepare students for it, Bush supporters have pointed to it as proof that their approach is working.

This year's NAEP scores will be released in the fall.

Nationally, they'll be a reflection of how well the No Child Left Behind Act is working. When the 2005 NAEP results didn't show much improvement, supporters said not enough time had elapsed since the act began in 2002.

In Florida, NAEP results will show whether Bush's policies succeeded in moving the needle in middle school. He focused mostly on the early grades, especially reading, with the hope that providing a more solid academic foundation would pay off as the kids got older.

Fast Facts:

The nation's 'FCAT'

- The NAEP was first given in 1969. State-to-state comparisons have been available since 1990.

- The NAEP is overseen by the National Assessment Governing Board, a bipartisan, 26-member board appointed by the secretary of education.

- To see NAEP scores, go to nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard.