The National Assessment Governing Board’s Troubling Gag Order

Someone is trying to gag the National Assessment Governing Board’s board members.

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — more commonly known as “the nation’s report card.” As the NAEP website puts it, “First administered in 1969, [NAEP] is the largest continuing and nationally representative assessment of what our nation’s students know and can do in subjects such as mathematics, reading, science, and writing.” In short, NAGB is in charge of the most reliable, trusted data on how American students are faring.

NAGB’s sprawling 26-member governing board includes a lively mix of educators, researchers, elected officials, the general public, and more. The whole value of such a board is to get multiple perspectives, allow the board members to learn from one another when discussing issues, and provide guidance that reflects the concerns of various stakeholders.

Well, on April 20, Haley Barbour, the chair of the NAGB board and a former governor of Mississippi, sent the board members a two-page letter spelling out a series of restrictions on how these board members can henceforth communicate.

Checker Finn, a former NAGB chair, president emeritus of the Fordham Institute, and one of the nation’s leading authorities on NAEP, wrote earlier this week of Barbour’s missive: “NAGB members must cease communicating with each other and with outsiders, at least if it’s in writing and pertains to matters that may come before the board. If they persist, they must share all such communications with board staff . . . Which is to say, Big Brother will henceforth watch every written communication that every NAGB member has with anyone on any ‘matter within the Board’s purview.’”

This is disturbing. Since NAGB deals with reading, math, civics, school performance, assessment, and more, pretty much any professional matter that educators or education researchers might discuss falls under the board’s purview. Presumably, this means that board members will no longer be free to question or discuss the organization’s decisions, with board colleagues or anyone else, except under the watchful eye of organizational leaders. It also means that any educator or official who raises a concern to a board member or asks a question of one will have their query forwarded to NAGB officialdom. Intentionally or not, this move could squash dissenting or inconvenient voices who fear getting caught crosswise with federal education officials.

As Finn notes, “Moreover, the Barbour letter says they’re going to shut down the ‘chat’ function during Zoom meetings so that board members cannot have side ‘conversations.’” The message this sends? As Finn puts it, “Turn off the internet. Don’t let them communicate. And they won’t be able to conspire or dissent.”

It’s not entirely clear what provoked this troubling move, or whether it came from Biden staffers at the Department of Education or NAGB officials seeking more control of the board. Aside from lots of vague head-nodding toward “management of government records,” “regulatory guidelines,” and “mandatory training,” Barbour’s letter (which has not yet been publicly released) never actually explains what changes necessitate or excuse its Draconian step. The letter suggests COVID-19 was the impetus, since it has “limited the time and ease with which” board members can engage one another — though it’s not clear how restricting communication helps with that. Barbour also alludes to federal laws “governing the preservation and protection of government records” — though, again, it’s unclear why private in-person conversations were kosher in 2019 but private conversations are suddenly illicit in 2021.

Some suspect that the letter is a response to the roiling concerns about NAGB’s proposed new reading “framework,” which features an increasingly controversial push to throw out the long-standing approach to reading comprehension in favor of one which, prominent critics argue, will de-emphasize texts and inflate scores.

Perhaps NAGB has a good reason for trying to impose a gag order on board members; stifle their ability to discuss issues with one another; or communicate with the nation’s educators, parents, researchers, and public officials. If so, I’d very much like to hear it. Otherwise, this directive sets a troubling precedent and one that needs to be reversed — the sooner the better. My understanding is that there’s already been substantial, commendable pushback from a number of board members. It can only help if those on the outside make their own voices heard, as well.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.