Keynote Address from U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander
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Keynote Address from U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander

NAGB 20th Anniversary Conference Keynote Address from U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander

Delivered on March 4, 2009

Thank you for allowing me to make some brief remarks in recognition of the National Assessment Governing Board's 20th anniversary. I was honored to be there at NAGB's inception, and I'm honored today to be able to commend you for the good work you've done through the years. Bill Bennett asked me to lead the so-called Alexander James Study Group on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1986 - it was my last year as governor. It was a pretty diverse group, including our new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We recommended the creation of what came to be called the National Assessment Governing Board to oversee what I like to call The Nation's Report Card. We said then that decision makers need to see the facts clearly. They must make sense of a storm of confusing data and help lead the way to better schools. The Nation's Report Card - if it is well designed, clear, and usable - can be a rudder against the storm. That's what we said then. It's clear to me now that NAGB has met this call over the last twenty years. And I commend you for maintaining that proud standard to this day.

NAEP started in 1969 with the first assessments in citizenship, science, and writing. Over the years other subjects were added, including social studies, math, art, and music. However, the data reported by those assessments didn't allow comparison among states or across school districts. So in 1983 we were challenged in this country by A Nation at Risk to refocus our efforts on public education and pay greater attention to student academic achievement. As a governor at that time, I was of the opinion that I couldn't ask for more of Tennessee's taxpayers' money for education if I couldn't show them how our students were doing in school. Many of my colleagues at the Southern Regional Education Board felt the same way and so we moved forward on this track. At that time we had Bill Clinton as governor of Arkansas; Bob Graham was governor of Florida; Dick Riley in South Carolina and William Winter had just left Mississippi. And we all had about the same ideas about education.

This, in a large part, contributed to Education Secretary Bill Bennett's idea of forming the Alexander James Study Group. We came up with seven key recommendations for the future of NAEP. Number one: make sure we could compare results of NAEP assessments. Two: assess the core curriculum. Three: focus on the transition grades 4, 8, and 12 and then expand the sample. Four: create and educational assessment council which became NAGB. Five: provide for new assessments in additional subjects. Six: include private schools and their students in the assessments. And seven: fund the essential assessment. I'd like to think it was because the ideas we put forth were bubbled up from the states that so many of the recommendations from our report, particularly the creation of the National Assessment Governing Board, were approved by Congress. We never added to the law a concept that I was interested in, and that was to call NAEP, The Nation's Report Card. But it caught on and we call it that to this day.

Since then, NAGB has worked as an important guardian of The Nation's Report Card. The NAEP is still considered a superb assessment of student learning. Nationally, we understand that improved student achievement on The Nation's Report Card is the real deal. And that when The Nation's Report Card shows a problem in student achievement, that problem is real.

As assessment results become more commonly understood, the language of standards-based reform came with it. Because of the consistency and reliability of NAEP over the past twenty years, you have provided a constant - a check and a balance-to any reform effort underway, as well as a trigger for needed reforms. The No Child Left Behind Act would not have been possible without an understanding of NAEP results. NAEP showed an appalling discrepancy between the achievement of white students and their minority peers, and Congress acted. We know because NAEP tells us that although white, black and Hispanic 4th and 8th graders have improved in mathematics achievement, there is still a 26 point gap between white and black students at fourth grade, and a 31 point gap in eighth grade. We know because NAEP tells us that white, black, and Hispanic fourth and eighth-graders have improved in reading achievement, but there is a 28 point gap between white and black students at the fourth grade and 27 points at the eighth grade.

While we may not have gotten everything right with No Child Left Behind, we know that states and local school districts are focusing like never before on disaggregated data so that we can improve achievement for all students. As we move forward with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, we'll continue to measure the success of our reforms with the cold, hard facts of the NAEP assessments.

Over the past twenty years the role you've played has been a key factor in cementing the standards-based reform movement across this nation. NAGB has set high standards, developed high quality assessments aligned to those standards, and reported data in a clear and understandable manner. The "well-designed, clear, and usable" report you provide has enabled parents and policymakers to compare and contrast achievement for all students at all levels, and measure the success or failure of reform efforts.

As we look ahead to the future, we know that the role of NAGB and The Nation's Report will not diminish. In fact, it will become even more important. As states strive to raise their standards or develop common standards or even national - but not federal - standards, we will still need to have the NAEP as an audit to ensure that those standards and assessments are good enough and that our children are indeed learning. As we look to maintain the competitive edge with China and India and Europe, we need to see where our students are in relation to their international peers. And The Nation's Report Card gives us that tool to make those comparisons.

As we look to the future, my most important hope is that The Nation's Report Card will maintain its rigor as a high standard for comparison of student achievement so that we can maintain our competitive edge as a nation. Second, it's also my hope that we will successfully expand NAEP in the area of United States history. I'm working with Senator Ted Kennedy to expand the NAEP to include United States history assessments. We want to expand beyond the national sample that we currently receive and get state-level data. We would start with a ten-state pilot to obtain state-level data in fourth, eighth and twelfth grade student achievement in U.S. history. Right now NAEP only provides national level data on U.S. history achievement every four years. From that, we know that student achievement in history needs improvement. We know that because NAEP tells us that only 17 percent of eighth-graders are at or above proficiency on the American history exam. Only 13 percent of twelfth-graders are at or above proficient. We can't allow this to continue, but state and local leaders won't be able to appreciate that they have a problem unless we measure student achievement with the NAEP assessment. I hope we'll be able to expand that so we can get regular information about student achievement in U.S. history at the state level.

So to close, I wish to extend my congratulations and my thanks to the National Assessment Governing Board on your 20th anniversary. And I look forward to continued good work and future editions of The Nation's Report Card.

Go to 20th Anniversary Conference Materials