It takes guts to place oneself in the limelight of public scrutiny," said Education Secretary Rod Paige last month in praise of six urban school districts' decision to expand the use of a federally sponsored test in their cities. "Gutsy" was the right description, since it yielded negative results about the districts' academic achievement.
In the first district-level administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), fourth- and eighth-grade students in six large urban districts (New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.) took trial NAEP reading and writing tests. Reading-proficiency levels were significantly lower in the urban districts; 66 percent of Chicago fourth-graders, for example, scored below a basic level, compared to 38 percent of fourth-graders nationally.
NAEP was created in the 1960s as a "report card" on education trends. Because it uses composite scoring, only a cross-section of students participates, and no participating student takes the entire test. To date, NAEP scores have been reported as national and state averages in standard demographic categories.
This trial urban administration of NAEP was the first to yield district-level data. Some have made a case for reporting NAEP scores down to the individual school for comparability purposes. Critics have argued, however, that a federally funded national test of this sort would exert inappropriate influence over curriculum.