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By All Measures: The True Road to Equity

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We have a miserable performance record in educating low-income, racial- and language-minority students. Given the changing demographics of our nation, we cannot succeed economically or in sustaining our democracy unless we succeed educationally with those students with whom we have historically failed. We need to create the policies and structures that result in high achievement by those students as well.

The most important question facing the nation today is whether America is really serious about pursuing educational equity. Or is it enough these days to only embrace the rhetoric that all children can learn? Many of us tend to be more delicate with the question, but for those who truly care about equity, perhaps the time has come to be blunt.

To be sure, equity will require extraordinary systemic change in the way education is delivered and governed. Different and greater capacities within the system are necessary. But those who go beyond the rhetorical must make sure that two of the essential components included in our comprehensive efforts to ensure high student achievement by all students are high national standards and a rigorous national assessment system.

Standards and assessments provide us with new arguments--moral, practical, political, and legal--that can give us the leverage we need to actually change the system to respond to the needs of all of America's children.

Advocating strong standards and assessments now is in sharp contrast to the traditional posture of those, including many whose first priority is the equity agenda, who come at these issues saying, "No standards and assessments until or unless. ...'' It also contrasts with others, including those in the Bush Administration, who argue for standards and assessments and "then we'll consider other features of the system.''

We should be insisting instead on quality standards and assessments now as part of building the capacity to help every child reach high levels of achievement. This, for example, is the kind of "social compact'' that the New Standards Project has promised with its partners, 17 states and six urban school districts.

It is not enough to have standards and examinations. They must be "done'' right. To do so, the standards must first be challenging. They must be national--not federal--adopted voluntarily by states. They must be developed from the best thinking of leaders in the professional discipline areas and must include structured, significant consultation with a diverse community of perspectives, including those reflecting the interests of low-income and racial- and language-minority students.

Second, examinations should be embedded in a system of multiple exams of different types; not a single national test.

Third, these examinations must be validated for particular uses and populations. This has powerful, positive equity implications since validity criteria should revolve around students' access to good instruction and curriculum that is relevant.

Fourth, attaching high stakes such as promotion or graduation for students should be permitted only after the school and its support system demonstrate success with a sufficient proportion of students, including those who are low-income, racial- or language-minority, to make clear "the system'' knows how to educate all students.

Fifth, the primary indicator of school performance would be the proportion of successful students, broken out by income, race, and language. Success should be defined in terms of the increasing proportion of a school's successful students measured against that school's previous performance. Success should not be defined through simplistic interschool or interjurisdictional comparisons.

Standards would be worthless without assessments permitting us to know whether they are being met. Similarly, standards and assessments are equally worthless--a cruel hoax--unless schools are able to succeed in helping all students meet them. Thus, the imperative of a system of standards and examinations must be accompanied by complete systemic change to provide new capacities to serve all children well. These changes include:

  • Time, not achievement, as the primary variable in the organization of each child's instructional program. High achievement as reflected by the standards must be the constant. Additional time can include instruction before and after school, on weekends, during the summer, and better use the existing school day.
  • A profound commitment to professional development that reflects school-level needs. This is analogous to the kind of commitment America's most successful corporations make to the continuous training and education of their employees.
  • Support for school-based staff members so they can identify or develop curriculum and practice instructional strategies that result in all students' meeting the new high standards.
  • School staff and parents having more authority over decisions affecting the instruction of their children.
  • Quality early-childhood programs for all disadvantaged students.
  • Expanded, improved, and integrated services to eliminate the health and social barriers to learning.
  • Technologies that enhance and individualize instruction and that offer teachers and students access to the best practice and people in the world. These technologies must be equitably available throughout the nation and within each state.

These are the elements of a change agenda that a number of us have been pursuing for some time. There even seems to be widespread agreement around them. So why are national standards and examinations so crucial to change and to the equity agenda? Because they provide the leverage to make it happen. They offer the leverage to affect every level of the system, from the classroom to the courtroom, from the student's house to the statehouse.

The single greatest obstacle faced by poor and minority students is the low expectations most adults have for their performance. Expectations are powerful, self-fulfilling prophecies. A highly visible national process of creating high standards and a rigorous examination system would create expectations for disadvantaged students that are not lower than those held for others. States and communities would be less likely to maintain today's system of expecting and asking less of poor and minority students and, consequently, offering them less. We must fundamentally change the present expectation framework that holds out only failure to far too many poor and minority students.

Standards and examinations that have been developed by a diverse community of interests will be a strong aid to teachers in fixing goals and assessing what they need to do at the student and classroom levels.

There are more points of leverage. The proposed system would permit fair incentive systems for teachers and other school and district staff. Rewards, assistance, and penalties could be based on students' performance, with the school as the unit of measurement. It would be wholly unfair to work toward a system of high stakes for students if there were none for the adults responsible for their education.

A system rooted in high standards and rigorous examinations could provide the political basis for significantly higher funding. The public, as shown by poll after poll, is willing to pay more taxes if it can be certain that the extra money would result in improved education results. Legislators, following that line of thinking, often say they will not "throw good money after bad.'' They believe that more funding for "the same old things'' will not produce results. In addition, there is a widespread view that, even after large increases in funding, educators are never held accountable. Educators, on the other hand, insist that more money must precede results. A new approach is necessary. If, for example, the public were assured that either the results would be forthcoming or that educators would face penalties, including possible job loss, the stage would be set for significant increases in funding.

Where the political remedy to insufficient funding was not forthcoming, the proposed system could offer a significant new legal strategy. If schools and districts don't bring students up the new standards, the state could be held constitutionally accountable for providing the resources districts and schools need to have their students meet the standards. Moreover, student outcomes, not just the equal distribution of money, could play a much more prominent role in remedies arising from such a legal strategy. The objective would become results, not just process and inputs.

There is at least one more compelling lever that a strong national standards and examinations system would provide. It could break the widespread complacency that now inhibits deep change. The prevalent view is that the country's schools are failing but "my school'' is O.K.. The fact is that a small percentage--some say as little as 5 percent--of our students perform at the levels required of an effective citizenry and an internationally competitive economy. But we now have no way of routinely sending an accurate message based on believable data. The common view arising from standardized, normed testing practice is that most students are performing at or above the "average.'' Many feel that is "good enough.'' High standards and rigorous examinations can change this perception. It will be clear that all students are at risk. Systemic change is more likely if the public knows all children, including "my children'' and "my school,'' are in trouble.

The question we face is not standards and exams or no standards and exams. The actual choice is high standards and rich examinations in a system with enhanced capacity versus what we have now--a system of deeply embedded low standards, especially for disadvantaged students, and a heavy, sometimes exclusive reliance on multiple-choice, normed tests. The proposed system is necessary to the equity agenda. The present system demonstrably undercuts that agenda.

Many believe that some form of national standards and testing is inevitable. If so, it becomes even more urgent that those who care most about those students we persistently fail become actively engaged. Only through such engagement can we help craft a system that helps all students succeed.

Some people come to this debate with an orientation toward the quality of the workforce and America's economic competitiveness. Others come with a moral imperative to succeed with all students, including, for the first time in the nation's history, low-income, racial- and language-minority students. Neither will succeed without the other. The leadership of both groups must come at these issues affirmatively.

We must ensure that the system that arises from the debate includes high standards and rigorous examinations and the capacity to educate all students. Equity and excellence are within our grasp, but only if the Bush Administration, the Congress, educators, the business community, student and child advocates, and all others who care about children and the nation's future affirm a comprehensive change agenda. It is not an either-or choice.

David W. Hornbeck is a former Maryland state superintendent of schools. He is an adviser to the Business Roundtable and to the National Center on Education and the Economy. He is also chairman of the board of the Public Education Fund Network, chairman of the Commission on Chapter 1, and a member of the board of the Children's Defense Fund.

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