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parent spots flaw in national test

Is there a reliable way to find out how well American kids are reading?

Until now, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) seemed the best route. It's as close as the US has come to a national report card. But a Kentucky parent has raised an issue that the national testing establishment is having a tough time answering: Can a state's scores be accurate when they don't include large numbers of low-scoring students?

In a May 14 report, the National Center for Education Statistics said that they could not exclude the possibility that Kentucky's big gains on the 1998 NAEP reading test were due to a high exclusion rate of special-needs students.

The admission promises to keep testers humming for some time. "It's a serious concern if we're trying to report progress and states are fiddling with the numbers of special-ed students that take the test. You can't make fair comparisons over time," says Chester Finn, a former chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board that directs NAEP.

That's why national testers took it seriously when Kentucky parent Richard Innes discovered a glitch in the 1998 NAEP reading scores. According to these results, Kentucky was one of the most improved states in fourth-grade reading.

Using data available over the Internet, Mr. Innes argued that gains in some states, including Kentucky, were the result of excluding higher numbers of students with learning disabilities. (Kentucky excluded 4 percent of fourth-graders in 1994 and 10 percent in 1998 on this basis.) There's no way of knowing how these excluded kids would have performed on the test. So NAEP contractors chose to assume that the excluded students would have been the poorest performers had they been tested. Their adjusted results showed that gains would be less for the four states (Kentucky, Connecticut, Louisiana, and South Carolina) with the largest increase in exclusion rates - and that Kentucky's gains would all but disappear.

Kentucky officials insist that this new analysis doesn't prove a lack of progress. "NAEP based that study on a worst-case analysis using the most extreme assumptions. We think our gains are still real," says Jim Parks, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Education. The reason more special-ed students were excluded was a change in NAEP rules barring kids who required any special accommodations, he adds.

College Students: Interested in writing for us?

We are always looking for college students to write for our "On Campus" column. To contribute a column, e-mail Kim Campbell at: campbellk@csps.com Or, write to The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA, 02115.

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