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By All Measures: Coming to Terms on World-Class Standards'

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Many people favor establishing a national system of education standards and assessments. So do I. But are the people who are for, or against, such a system necessarily talking about the same things? At this point, do we know what the basic terms of the discussion even mean?

The most basic term of all is standards. Our standards, everyone seems to agree, will be world class and the same for all students. I, too, believe we can and must have both excellence and equity. But what do "world-class standards'' mean? I define standards as what we want youngsters to know and be able to do as a result of their education. Unless we're satisfied to rewrite at the national level our states' and districts' vague, motherhood-and-apple-pie education goals statements, this definition of standards inevitably must (but rarely does) bring us to the contentious issue of what students should learn and the levels of performance we should demand of them: What is good enough? What is excellent?

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

So when we talk about world-class standards, do we mean content standards: searching out the best international examples for what students should know and be able to do at various stages of their school career? Do we mean performance standards? If so, does that mean looking at the achievement of our competitors' best students and making their maximum our new minimum? Does it mean looking at average performances of their top, middle, and bottom or just overall averages?

I am not sure. I hear a lot about setting "standards'' through a public process, which may or may not be the same thing as making our standards world-class ones. I hear a lot about developing new assessments--dangerously quick and cheap ones, technically pristine and dauntingly expensive ones--which will be pegged to world-class standards. I even hear about pilot tests based on world-class standards. But I don't hear much about examining what world-class content or performance standards are or the relationship between the two.

If we did, we'd find, for example, that our competitors' content standards are explicit and embodied in core curriculums that all students are taught at least through elementary school. Yet mentioning a common core of learning or even national curriculum frameworks here provokes an allergic reaction. Is there justification for our optimism that we can have uniform national standards for our students without either being explicit about content or pointing to or developing some model curriculum frameworks? Can we square our rhetoric about expecting all students to meet world-class standards with the assurances being given to states, districts, and schools that they may use different curriculums to achieve those results and different assessments to measure those results? And can those different assessments given under different conditions produce results that are comparable all the way from the individual student to the national level? Some people I respect say yes, others no. Don't we need to sort out the competing answers, or at least agree on the terms used in the discussion?

If we examined world-class standards, we'd also see that they become either partially or wholly differentiated, in some places as early as 5th grade and in most places by the equivalent of our junior-high or middle school. In other words, these nations track children, which we do, too, but dishonestly and badly. Starting around secondary school, our competitors' content and performance standards--and assessments--vary according to whether their students are aiming for an apprenticeship or for a technical school or hoping to go to a university; sometimes, these standards and tests also vary by what kind of technical education or university major students intend to pursue.

I'm not saying that we should embrace these "world class'' practices as a model.

I'm not saying that we should embrace these "world class'' practices as a model. There is a lot in them that is repugnant to our values and commitment to second, third, and more chances. The point is that there are at least three or four sets of orld-class standards. The best of our competitors have much higher content and performance standards for young children than we do, and those standards, unlike ours, are uniform. The best of our competitors also have much higher content and performance standards for their university-, technical college-, and work-bound students than we do--and those standards are all different. None of these countries has one set of standards, world-class or otherwise, that applies to all of its secondary-school students, as our rhetoric is promising here.

Has our necessary preoccupation with ending different expectations for students based on group membership--race, ethnicity, class--blinded us to the fact that different students have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, and aspirations? Are we so unwilling to talk openly about differentiated standards or so paralyzed by our history of handling them inequitably that we'd rather risk massive student failure? No wonder the national standards and assessment discussion is so gun-shy about student (but not teacher) accountability! If each of our students has to meet world-class standards in each of the liberal arts and technical subjects in order to go to college or get a good job, then there will be few college students and even fewer decently paid workers. The more likely outcome of setting a single standard is a low standard, a new and higher minimum. That's movement, and that's a plus. But it's not the same thing as world-class standards. It's not the same thing as stretching everyone. And it does not get us much closer to achieving both equity and excellence.

I remain strongly committed to creating a national system of standards and assessments, and I do not expect it to be perfect at the onset. But there are lots of questions going begging, and many players using the same words and meaning different things. There's too much at stake for us not to come to terms.

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