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By All Measures: 'Archimedes Lever for Change'

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In the final analysis, the only benefit of a national standards-and-assessment system that really counts is improved student performance. A new system should prompt changes in curriculum, in instruction, in the preparation of teachers, and in a host of other areas. But these changes will have been simply that--changes and not improvements--unless student learning increases.

Standards and assessments can have a major impact on education. We need look only to the 1980's to see the effects across the nation of minimum standards set by the states. These minimum standards helped some students, primarily those at the bottom quarter of the "academic food chain.'' But they had a negative effect on curriculum and instruction. They narrowed the focus and lowered expectations for teachers and millions of students in America. Given that history, why should we not believe that higher standards and better assessments can have a positive impact on expectations and performance?

Attitudes, including the attitudes of educators and government officials, are the primary obstacle to achieving such a system. We will not be able to achieve a system of standards and assessments until many more people in key positions believe that it is fundamentally important. We are not at that point.

Complacency, distrust of assessment, the red herring of a national curriculum--all of these and more form the major obstacles to achieving such a system.

Several examples encourage me to believe that such attitudes can be overcome. The consensus process used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress to develop curriculum objectives and to propose achievement levels for performance is a powerful illustration of what is possible. The Advanced Placement Program and the National Teacher Examinations program provide further evidence. High-school graduation requirements are in place across the nation. They represent a remarkable, unintended consensus: a consensus on unacceptably low expectations. If we have, by coincidence, agreed on low standards and minimum-competency assessments, we can by design agree on higher standards and more challenging assessments.

One can argue, as did the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, that only "deep and systemic change will have the power to alter school-district, state, and community behavior sufficiently for virtually all students to meet the new standards the nation requires.'' There is little reason to believe, however, that systemic change is going to occur without there first being standards and compelling assessments related to those standards.

Standards and assessments may be the Archimedes lever for systemic change. We cannot wait for a critical mass in support of systemic change before we implement standards and assessments.

Mark D. Musick is president of the Southern Regional Education Board and vice-chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board. He was a member of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing.

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