Standards and Testing Report Is Hailed, Criticized
As the Congress and the National Education Goals Panel begin to take steps to implement the recommendations of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, educators and policymakers are hailing the council's report as a ringing endorsement of high national standards for student performance and a system of assessments tied to those standards.
But many caution that the council faces daunting political and technical hurdles in realizing its vision. The council proposed a substantial reliance on performance-based assessments, for example, even though such assessments are untested on a large scale.
And even if those hurdles can be overcome, analysts say, there is no guarantee that the new system would result in dramatic improvements in student learning.
Indeed, some critics are warning that the outcome of the process set in motion by the council could end up harming the schools if it leads to a greater degree of federal control over instruction.
"I see this as the tip of the iceberg," said Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools. "The iceberg is the arrogation of authority over children by the central government, in the name of high standards and international competition."
"That's a very questionable proposition," he said.
Council members acknowledged the critics' concerns and suggested that the panel's proposal shares the goal of improving the education of all children. The panel's first task, said Marshall S. Smith, the dean of the graduate school of I education at Stanford University and a council member, is to explain to the public its recommendations, many of which are new to schools in this country.
"This is new territory for the United States," Mr. Smith said. "it deserves a lot of attention."
'A Revolutionary Step'
In its report, issued late last month, the 32-member council called for national standards in five core subjects and a national system of assessments to gauge student performance against the standards. (See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)
It also proposed a new governance structure to oversee the system, including a revamped goals panel and a new 21-member council of educators, public officials, and representatives of the general public.
Members of the goals panel, which met the same day the council's report was released, praised the document and voted to ask the National Governors' Association to reconstitute the goals panel along the lines recommended in the report and to seek nominations for the new council.
"This is a revolutionary step in American education," said U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, a member of the goals panel. "Before it is through, it will affect every classroom in the nation's 110,000 schools."
Members of the Congress, which appointed the standards council along with the goals panel, also moved to implement its recommendations. Even before the report was released, the Senate voted unanimously to codify by statute the reconstituted goals panel and to establish the new council to oversee the development of standards and a national system of assessments.
The House, however, plans to hold a series of hearings on the proposals, beginning this week, before considering legislation to implement the council's recommendations. Several House members have raised concerns about a proposal to allow states to determine the criteria on which they will measure their schools' capacity to ensure that children are able to meet the standards, according to an Education and Labor Committee aide.
The U.S. Education Department is also taking steps toward the development of standards and assessments, Mr. Alexander said. The office of educational research and improvement is planning in June to hold international conferences on "world class" standards and on successful teaching in core subjects, he explained.
The O.E.R.I. also included in its proposed fiscal 1993 budget requests for funds for research and development on '"break the mold" assessments and aid to states for developing curricular frameworks and assessments to meet the standards.
An 'Optimistic' Timetable
Partly because of these developments, standards could be in place in the five core subjects--English, mathematics, science, history, and geography--within 12 to 18 months, predicted Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, the co-chairman of the standards council.
Some educators suggest, however, that that timetable may be too short.
"It's not crazily optimistic, but it's optimistic," said Susan H. Fuhrman, the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University. "A lot of people will have to work very hard" to meet that deadline.
Miles Myers, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, said standards in that subject would take "three to four years" to be developed.
The group has begun to sift through state curriculum frameworks, national reform documents, and research on learning in the language arts, and is expected to produce a draft statement in the fall of 2993, Mr. Myers said. The draft would then be sent out to teachers for further refinements, he added.
"We have a lot of rich work to bring together ," Mr. Myers said. "it's not going to be done just overnight."
Frank Newman, the president of the Education Commission of the States, also noted that political arguments, such as those over multicultural education, might slow the development of standards in history and geography.
"In math, most people don't feel comfortable arguing an idealogical side to the issue,"he said. "That's not true in other fields. There are powerful arguments about what kids should know."
Can These Airplanes Fly?
Most educators say that, despite these hurdles, standards could eventually be set. But many are less confident about the proposed assessment system.
The council's call for a greater use of performance-based assessments instead of conventional multiple-choice tests to measure student achievement will demand a major research and-development effort to produce the new instruments, according to Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.
"I wonder if these airplanes can really fly," he said. "I'm not ready yet to say [the council's report] heralds a new millennium until I see the tests."
In addition to the difficulty in developing new assessment tools, the proposed system must confront the technical challenge of ensuring that the tests are comparable to one another, said Darnel M. Koretz, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation.
But that may be difficult to bring about, he said, because the governance system the council recommended will not necessarily include anyone with technical expertise in testing and measurement.
"We wouldn't have drug trials evaluated by people with no expertise in medicine or pharmacology," Mr. Koretz said.
But Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, said the goals panel and the new council could name experts to advise them as they create the new system, just as the goals panel did in coming up with measures of progress toward the national education goals.
Moreover, he contended, having political leaders oversee the process is appropriate, since they must make decisions about the allocation of resources for school reforms.
"If you look at the larger set of reform issues, and what it will take to get follow-through on change," Mr. Payzant said, "without the commitment of political forces at the federal, state, and local levels, it's not going to happen."
Such support is vital if the new system is to raise student achievement, added Gordon Cawelti, the executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Although standards and assessments could help point the way to improved performance, he said, schools must invest in developing the knowledge to improve teaching in all subjects in order to ensure that all students are able to attain the standards.
"High performance is related to adequate resources, no matter how often we may be told otherwise," Mr. Cawelti said.