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National Achievement Tests, International

National testing of elementary and secondary students exists in most industrialized countries. Each country's national examinations are based on national curricula and content standards. The difference in weight and consequence of the exams varies tremendously from country to country, as does the use of exams at various levels of education. In France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan, examinations at the lower secondary or elementary level are required for admission to academic secondary schools. In the United States, there is a more informal system of tracking students into academic, vocational, or general studies within the same secondary school. In Japan and Korea secondary students take nationally administered examinations that determine their postsecondary placement. Topscoring students attend the most prestigious public universities. In France the baccalaureate examinations are given to students at academic secondary schools (the lycée) as exit examinations and also to determine university placement. In Germany a similar distinction is made between academic and vocational secondary school, and passing the Abitur (exit examination from Gymnasium or academic secondary school) allows students to continue on to university-level coursework. In Great Britain students study for their A-level examinations for university placement. Finally, in Italy students must pass exit examinations at both the lower-and upper-secondary levels. At the secondary level, the Esami di maturita impacts university attendance or employment.

In the United States the SAT (once called either the Scholastic Assessment Test or the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the ACT (the American College Test) are required for entrance into the more prestigious and rigorous colleges and universities. This system closely mirrors that of Japan, Korea, France, and Germany with the exception of the lack of federal governing. However, the SAT and ACT are not meant to monitor student performance over time and are not national tests of student performance, as are the aforementioned tests specific to other countries.

In contrast to the nations described above, the United States has no national system of education and as such no national or federal assessment that has an impact on students at the individual level. The system of public education in the United States is characterized by a high degree of decentralization. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits direct federal government involvement in education; the provision of education is a state-level function. States and local school districts are the entities charged with policy and curriculum decisions. Nonetheless, there has been a trend toward increased measures of national performance for the past three to four decades. Although the United States has no national curriculum, given the truly global nature of society, curricula are converging in similarity within the United States as well as internationally.

Current Trends in Educational Assessment

In 1965 Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which authorized federal support for the education of disadvantaged and handicapped children. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) made clear the federal government's commitment to equal education for all by mandating fairness criteria for disadvantaged and minority students. With ESEA standardized testing became entrenched in American education, as it required regular testing in schools that receive federal funding for disadvantaged students.

A major surge toward education reform can be linked to the 1983 Department of Education sponsored report, A Nation at Risk. While the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term assessment showed gains for every age group between 1971 and 1992, declining SAT scores drew national attention with pronouncements that the education system in the United States was failing its students and society as a whole.

In 1989 President George Bush and the nation's governors established a set of six national education goals to be achieved by all students in the United States by the year 2000. These six goals plus two more were enacted into law as part of President Bill Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994). The goals stated that by the year 2000, all students would come to school ready to learn, high school graduation rates would increase, students would demonstrate competency in challenging subject matter and would be prepared for life-long learning, U.S. students would be first in the world in science and mathematics, American adults would be literate and productive citizens, schools would be drug-and violence-free, teachers would be more prepared, and parental involvement in education would rise. The education goals set forth by President George Bush and furthered in strength and number by President Bill Clinton with the Educate America Act increased the demands on accountability systems in education at both the state and national levels.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress had been monitoring the nation's student achievement for many years. The new reforms and new goals required more of the NAEP than it could provide. In 1994 NAEP responsibilities and breadth were extended with the reauthorization of NAEP through the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994. As the National Research Council states in its 1999 publication High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation, "recent education summits, national and local reform efforts, the inception of state NAEP and the introduction of performance standards have taken NAEP from a simple monitor of student achievement–free from political influence and notice–into the public spotlight" (p. 25). Linking federal funding with the development of performance-based standards and assessments and accountability only enhanced the attention and emphasis place on the NAEP.

In 2001 President George W. Bush proposed tying federal education dollars to specific performance-based initiatives including mandatory participation in annual state NAEP assessments in reading and mathematics and high-stakes accountability at the state level. The emphasis in Bush's reform "blueprint" is on closing the achievement gap for minority and disadvantaged students. To this end, President Bush signed into law Public Law 107-110 (H.R.1), the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The Act contains four major provisions for education reform: stronger accountability for results, expanded flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven to work. Direct accountability based on NAEP is not part of the final public law.

As the nation turned toward an increasing reliance on student assessment so too did the states. States began implementing minimum competency examinations in the 1970s. By 1990 more than forty states in the nation required some form of minimum competency examination (MCE) before awarding the high school diploma. For example, Massachusetts tenth graders are required to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) prior to earning a high school diploma. In Kentucky graduating seniors can distinguish themselves by not only fulfilling the requirements for graduation and a high school diploma but by also fulfilling the requirements for the Commonwealth Diploma that include successful completion of advanced placement credits. Students in Texas must pass secondary-level exit examinations before graduating high school. In North Carolina students must pass exit examinations as part of the requirement set for obtaining a high school diploma. The trend favors the implementation of more examinations with consequences for states at the national level, and for students at the state level.

National Examinations in the United States

In the United States, there are two sets of "national" examinations. The first set includes the SAT, the American College Test (ACT), and the Advanced Placement (AP) examinations, which allow high school seniors to earn college credits for advanced level classes. The second set is known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These tests have come to be known as "The Nation's Report Card." The NAEP is a federally funded system of assessing the standard of education in the nation. It is the only nationally representative test. It is also the only test given that selects a representative sample of U.S. students, testing the same standard of knowledge over time. It provides no measure of individual student, school, or school district performance.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

The NAEP is a federally funded national examination that regularly tests a national sample of American students. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the Department of Education has primary responsibility for the NAEP. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Westat currently administer the NAEP. Finally, the NAEP is governed by an independent organization, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) charged with setting policies for the NAEP.

The NAEP has three distinct parts: a long-term trend assessment of nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-olds, a main assessment of the nation, and the state trial assessments. The long-term assessment has been administered to nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-old students every four years since 1969. The main assessment and trial state assessments began in 1990, testing fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades in various subjects. NAEP allows trend evaluations as well as comparisons of performance between groups of students.

NAEP long-term assessment. The NAEP long-term assessment is the only test based on a nationally representative sample of students. It is the only test that can be used to track long-term trends in student achievement. The tests have been given to national samples of nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-old students and have maintained a set of questions such that the results in any given year can be compared to any other year. The long-term or trend assessments are designed to track academic performance over time.

The early tests were given in science, mathematics, and reading, and were administered every four years until 1988 and more frequently after 1988. Writing tests that can be compared over years were given in 1984, and geography, history, civics, and the arts have been tested more recently. Until the early 1980s NAEP results were reported by question, indicating the percentage of students answering a particular question correctly over time.

Overall NAEP scores show small to modest gains. From the early 1970s to 1996, gains occurred in math, reading, and science for nine-and thirteen-year-old students, and in math and reading for seventeen-year-old students. The gains in science were small, approximately.10 standard deviations or three percentile points, for all age groups. Math gains for nine-and thirteen-year-old students were larger, between.15 and.30 standard deviations. Evidence suggests that these trends mask differentiated trends by race and/or ethnic groups.

During the same time period (1970–1996), substantial gains occurred for both Hispanic and black students and for lower-scoring students. For instance, black gains between.30 and.80 standard deviations occurred for almost all subjects in all age groups.

NAEP main assessment and trial state assessments. Between 1984 and 1987 the NAEP underwent an "overhaul" in order to accommodate the increasing demands being placed on it. First, the main assessment and state assessments were added to the NAEP. Second, new instruments were designed to measure not only what students know but also what students should know. Third, test items in every subject area were based on rigorous, challenging content standards. Fourth, NAEP's independent governing board, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), identified performance standards or achievement levels at advanced, proficient, basic, below basic knowledge levels.

Main NAEP, or the main assessment, is administered to a nationally representative sample of students, testing overall student achievement. Unlike the long-term NAEP, main NAEP test items are content-based, reflecting current curriculum and instructional practices. Test items are designed to test student performance in relation to the national education goals and to monitor short-term trends in academic achievement. The main assessment is given in mathematics, reading, writing, and science to fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders at intervals of two years.

The state-level NAEP is administered to representative samples of students within states. The assessment items are the same as those on the main assessment. The trial state assessment and the main assessment are given in mathematics, reading, writing and science at intervals of two years or more beginning in 1990. Between 1990 and 2000 there were seven math tests: an eighth grade assessment in 1990, and fourth and eighth grade exams in 1992, 1996, and 2000. Reading tests have been administered to fourth graders in 1992, 1994, and 1998. In 1998 an eighth grade assessment in reading was administered for the first time.

Significant short-term trends are being made nationally. Statistically significant trends can be seen across the 1990–1992, 1992–1994, and 1992–1996 testing cycles. The largest gains occurred for eighth grade math tests, where composite gains between 1990 and 1996 are about.25 standard deviation, or eight percentile points. Smaller gains of approximately.10 standard deviation or three percentile points occurred in fourth grade math from 1992 to 1996. Reading scores show a decline of approximately.10 standard deviations per year between 1992 and 1994.

The estimated score gains in mathematics indicate a trend of.03 standard deviations or one percentile point per year made between 1990 and 1996 in math across states. About three-quarters of states show consistent, statistically significant annual gains in mathematics between 1990 and 1996. The rate of change varies dramatically across states, from being flat to gains of.06 to.07 standard deviations per year. The sizes of the later gains are remarkable and far above the historical gains of.01 standard deviation per year on the long-term assessment. These results do not change when the fourth and eighth grade 1998 NAEP Reading Assessment and 2000 Mathematics Assessment are added to the sample. (This trend estimates control for student demographics and home environments. A consensus has been reached in the education research community that school systems–here, states–should be judged on score differences and trends beyond the family characteristics that they face.)

International Assessment of Student Performance

International comparisons of student achievement are of growing concern given the trend toward a more global economy. Poor United States performance on international examinations is inextricably linked in the minds of Americans of decreasing economic competitiveness. Part of the debate over voluntary national testing includes the question of linking the NAEP to international tests of achievement as well as to state achievement tests.

Third International Mathematics and Science Study. In 1995 and 1999 the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Assessment (IEA) administered the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to students in grades 3–4, 7–8 and the last year of secondary schooling. The TIMSS was an ambitious effort. More than forty-one countries and half a million students participated. Cross-country comparisons place the United States in the bottom of the distribution in student performance on the TIMSS. International assessments galvanize support for educational improvement. However, recent evidence suggests the overall poor performance of the United States hides the above average performance of several states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin, all of which are states with higher than average levels of median family income and parental educational attainment.

Programme for International Student Assessment.

In 2000 the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered examinations of reading, mathematics, and science literacy. Literacy is defined in terms of content knowledge, process ability, and the application of knowledge and skills. Thirty-two countries participated in PISA 2000 with more than 250,000 students representing 17 million students enrolled in secondary education in the participating countries.

The PISA assessments differ from the TIMSS in that

"the assessment materials in TIMSS were constructed on the basis of an analysis of the intended curriculum in each participating country, so as to cover the core material common to the curriculum in the majority of participating countries. The assessment materials in PISA 2000 covered the range of skills and competencies that were, in the respective assessment domains, considered to be crucial to an individual's capacity to fully participate in, and contribute meaningfully to, a successful modern society." (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, p. 27.)

The latter assessment form reflects the growing trends in curricula that emphasize the same thing: training students for life-long learning.

PISA performance in reading, mathematics and science literacy is measured on a zero to 500 scale with a standard deviation of 100. The United States performed at the OECD mean score in reading, mathematics, and scientific literacy. The performance of the United States was better in reading than mathematics; reading and scientific literacy were not statistically different. The United States was outperformed in each literacy domain by Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, Finland, and New Zealand.


Although there are no federal-level examinations in the United States and there is a distinction between national testing, national standards, and federal testing and standards, the federal government is able to indirectly influence what is taught is public schools. First, the adoption of national goals for education provides states with a centralized framework for what students should know. Second, the federal government awards money to states to develop curriculum and assessments based on these goals. And third, states that align their curriculum and testing to the NAEP achieve higher overall performance measures on the NAEP. All of these and more make the National Assessment of Educational Progress truly a "national" examination.


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