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Council Calls for A New System of Standards, Tests

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WASHINGTON--Asserting that the current education system has produced expectations for student performance that are "simply too low," a Congressionally mandated panel last week called for high national standards for student achievement and a national system of assessments to gauge their attainment.

In its much-anticipated report, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a 32-member panel of educators, business leaders, and public officials, concludes that creating such standards and assessments is both highly desirable and feasible.

It proposes standards for schools and school systems as well as for students, and it recommends a two-part assessment system that would consist of individual student assessments and a large-scale sample, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The report recommends that the new system be overseen by the National Education Goals Panel reconfigured to be politically balanced---together with a 21-member council it would appoint. The two bodies would evaluate and certify as "world class" standards and assessments that are developed by private and government agencies.

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, cochairman of the standards council, called the report "historic."

"This is the first time that there has been a national effort--from Congress, the Administration, and governors--intended to set standards for education in the country," the Governor said.

"It signals that we are serious about raising standards," he continued, "and finding ways to do it that respect both local control and national leadership."

But the council faces a battle in trying to persuade the goals panel and the Congress to adopt its recommendations. The same day the report was released, a group of four dozen prominent educators and scholars--including two members of the council--released a statement expressing serious reservations about national assessments. (See story, page 30.)

Governor Romer, however, predicted that the report would be widely accepted. He said the fact that the diverse membership of the council was able to agree on the report indicates that it has widespread support throughout the country.

The group, he said, "organized itself into a battalion against the enemy-the enemy is low performance, not each other."

'De Facto Minimal Skills'

The report issued here last week, "Raising Standards for American Education," is the latest step in a process that began with the 1989 "education summit" between President Bush and the nation's governors, which led to the adoption of six national education goals.

To monitor progress toward Goal 3, which calls for students to demonstrate competence in challenging subject matter, the goals panel began to consider the development of standards for what students should know and be able to do and a way of assessing students' success in meeting the standards, the report says.

To accomplish those objectives, the goals panel and the Congress agreed to appoint the standards council, and they charged it with advising on the desirability and feasibility of national standards and assessments and with recommending policies to plan for them.

In its deliberations, the report notes, the council agreed that national standards and a system of assessments are desirable.

"In the absence of demanding content and performance standards," it states, "the United States has gravitated toward having a de facto minimal-skills curriculum."

High standards and a high-quality system of assessments, by contrast, would help ensure that all students acquire the skills and knowledge needed to participate in society and to help make the nation economically more competitive, the report argues.

But in endorsing such standards and assessments, the council also cautioned that they should not develop into a national curriculum or a single national test, two ideas that draw strong opposition from many educators.

"Rather," the report states, "[the standards] should serve as a basic core of important understandings that all students need to acquire, but certainly not everything that a student should learn."

5 Components to Standards

The standards, according to the report, should include five components: an overarching statement to provide a "guiding vision"; content standards that describe the material schools should teach; student-performance standards that spell out levels of competence; school-delivery standards that assess a school's capacity and performance in enabling students to meet the standards; and system-performance standards, which provide evidence of the success of schools and school systems in bringing students up to standards.

The report also points out that the process of setting standards is now under way in each of the five subject areas mentioned in the national goals--English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. And it proposes that standards-setting be expanded into other subjects, including citizenship education, foreign languages, and the arts.

Although most of the standards would be developed at the national level, states collectively would develop the school-delivery standards, from which individual states could choose the criteria for evaluating their own schools.

Several members of the Congress have indicated that they would oppose allowing states to develop their own criteria for assessing their schools' capacities.

'A Catalyst for Progress'

But Governor Romer predicted last week that states would be willing to hold themselves accountable.

"Will they wallow off into indecision? I don't think they will," he said. "It's too important."

Turning to assessments, the council proposed a new system that would provide information to exemplify the levels of student achievement that are expected, to improve instruction, to inform students and parents about student progress, to hold schools and school systems accountable for educational performance, and to assist policymakers.

"The council notes that it is unlikely that all of these purposes can be accomplished with the same test or assessment instrument," the report says.

The report suggests that new assessments must be developed or acquired by states and districts to measure performance against the new standards, and it states that "there is significant interest in the promise of performance-based assessments" to serve that function.

However, it stops short of proposing that all the new assessments be performance-based, stating instead that "innovative techniques used by states and localities may be important elements in the mix of assessment instruments that make up the new national system."

The report notes that many of the functions of the new standards and assessment system are already being carried out by private groups and government agencies. It suggests that the proposed new coordinating structure "act as a catalyst for progress rather than retard current efforts."

It urges, though, that the oversight system be put in place quickly. The National Education Goals Panel was expected late last week to vote to reconfigure itself along the lines proposed in the report, and the Senate last week unanimously adopted an amendment to create the National Education Standards and Assessments Council the report recommends. (See story, page I .)

Despite the strong recommendation for standards and assessments, the council also notes that such reforms should be part of a comprehensive, systemic reform that would also include changes in curriculum, instructional materials, technology, and teacher education.

In addition, the report states that equity should be a primary concern of educators and policymakers.

"Providing genuine opportunity for all students to achieve high standards," it says, "is a national moral imperative."

A limited number of flee copies of the report are available from the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, 1850 M St., N.W., Suite 1050, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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