A Report Card for Schools

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1964

As policymakers began to focus on improving the performance of public schools, they felt the need for accurate ways to track student achievement. In 1963, U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel turned to the Carnegie Corporation for help. The foundation immediately sponsored a pair of conferences, and in 1964 created the Exploratory Committee on Assessing the Progress of Education.

Carnegie rapidly disbursed more than $2.4 million to develop a set of standard tests that would allow U.S. educational performance to be reliably measured and assessed over time. Carnegie’s grants led to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, now known as “the nation’s report card.” The NAEP tests are taken by American students every two years, and have become “the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.” If educators, policymakers, media, and the public are to gauge the improvement or decline of American schools—accurately, across eras, without ax-grinding or wishful thinking—there has to be a consistent, widely accepted yardstick. NAEP is that accountability device, and it has been essential to the rise of the educational excellence movement over the last 30 years.

In the 1980s, additional important refinements of the NAEP testing regimen were made with philanthropic support from the Lyle Spencer Foundation. In NAEP’s early days, education bureaucrats worried about unflattering comparisons got state-by-state data collections and comparisons banned. A panel headed by Spencer’s Thomas James and Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander managed to have that prohibition removed, and since then, state comparisons have become a powerful force for motivating higher educational standards in places that are lagging.