Thursday, April 13, 2000

In the presidential Reading Wars, a serious question underlies the rhetoric: Are test scores being manipulated for political advantage?

Republican George W. Bush, who unveiled this month a proposed $5 billion literacy initiative, launched the first volley by contending that under President Clinton and Vice President Gore, reading scores have stagnated for eight years. Mr. Gore fired back with an ad claiming that reading scores are “going up across America,” but questioning the authenticity of academic gains in Texas under Gov. Bush.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are the main bone of contention and specifically the NAEP reading scores made public last spring. If education becomes the No. 1 issue this fall, such data could make or break a president. Arguably, they already have ended the tenure of a too-candid U.S. commissioner of education statistics, Pascal Forgione Jr., and won nomination as his successor an education researcher, Lauress Wise, who furnished a creative reinterpretation of NAEP data that was favorable to the Clinton-Gore Administration. Mr. Forgione is now school superintendent in Austin, Texas, deep in the heart of Bushland.

The story begins Feb. 10, 1999, in the U.S. Department of Education auditorium, which took on the trappings of a Gore-for-president rally. Before loudly cheering supporters who got DoEd’s choicest seats up front, Mr. Gore boasted that the 1998 NAEP reading scores amounted to “great progress,” particularly in states like Kentucky with progressive reform plans favored by the Clinton-Gore administration.

Mr. Gore had bragged of a rise in fourth, eighth and 12th grade scores in 1998 over those on the 1994 NAEP reading test. But after the rally was over, it fell to Mr. Forgione, as guardian of statistical integrity, to point out that the fourth and 12th graders had shown “no net gain” since 1992, the first year the current version of NAEP had been given.

Within days, an even bigger crack appeared in NAEP’s pretty picture. Lauded states like Kentucky had increased greatly their exclusions of disabled students from NAEP testing between 1994 and 1998. The Bluegrass State’s fourth-grade reading scores had gone up 6 points, but that was matched by an increase in excluded students from 4 percent to 10 percent. Anyone with common sense knows that holding back many of the weaker students from testing will improve the overall averages. Mr. Forgione honestly conceded mistakes might have been made in data interpretation. He asked the Educational Testing Service whether Kentucky’s gains were real, but the mighty ETS could not validate them.

All this made Mr. Forgione a Grade-A party-pooper to Gore partisans. In May 1999, after floating a nebulous “tax troubles” cloud over him, the Clinton-Gore administration refused to renominate Mr. Forgione as the statistics czar.

Then, as in “Alice in Wonderland,” things just got “curiouser and curiouser.” DoEd’s National Center on Education Statistics (NCES), which Mr. Forgione had headed, brought in Lauress Wise of the Alexandria-based Human Resources Research Organization to take yet another look at the Kentucky scores. Kentucky Education Commissioner Wilmer Cody, a member of NAEP’s governing board, was peeved about the stain on his state’s reformist image.

The choice of Mr. Wise did not indicate a burning desire within NCES for objectivity. Mr. Wise, you see, was already on Mr. Cody’s payroll to conduct long-term research on Kentucky’s assessment system. Mr. Wise’s methodology did not do much to dispel questions of credibility. Basically, he attempted to generate NAEP-equivalent scores for Kentucky’s excluded disabled students by looking at how they tested on an assessment used only in Kentucky the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS).

But there’s a serious problem of comparability: For KIRIS, proctors read the reading test to many of the disabled kids. That’s not done on NAEP. (Indeed, how can it be a reading test when it is read to you?) Besides, questions of KIRIS’ validity became so grave Kentucky abandoned the test after 1998. Thus, the Wise study built its supposed NAEP-equivalents from an obsolete test that was abandoned because of its serious flaws. Nevertheless, when Mr. Wise pronounced Kentucky’s gains on the NAEP reading test to be the real deal, NCES said the point was proven, case closed.

Now the plot grows even “curiouser.” In February, President Clinton nominated Lauress Wise to be the new U.S. commissioner of education statistics. Could this have been in gratitude for protecting his education legacy, and Mr. Gore’s candidacy? One would think the Senate would want to take a long, hard look at Mr. Wise’s Kentucky study in confirmation hearings.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington.

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