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Standards Groups Ponder Value of Setting Ability Levels

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WASHINGTON--Many of the groups developing national standards for what students should "know and be able to do'' in specific subjects are close to answering the thorny question of whether to set more than one performance level.

In considering the question, some of the groups have even reversed their previous positions on whether to set one high standard for all students or allow for differing levels of student achievement, such as "advanced'' and "proficient.''

The issue of performance levels emerged during the standards-setting groups' first national meeting in September. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1992.)

Last week, as those groups met here together for a second time under the sponsorship of the Education Department, it appeared that many had come far in resolving that question. It was also clear, however, that their approaches to the issue differ markedly.

One Level for History?

The National Council for History Standards, for example, which had been leaning toward defining two levels of student achievement, may now set only one level, said Charlotte K. Crabtree, who is directing that effort.

Ms. Crabtree said the group reversed its position at the strong insistence of classroom teachers who had been drafted to help write the standards.

"The teachers felt that any time you divide this way, you're inviting tracking,'' Ms. Crabtree said.

"The teachers said it isn't just a matter of tracking,'' she added, "it's also so arbitrary. If you say, 'This is advanced,' well, how do you know?''

Ms. Crabtree said the single standard would be followed by indicators describing the "steps we have to take in getting there.'' For example, she said, a standard requiring students to "understand the principles of the Declaration of Independence'' might have indicators suggesting that students should be able to: define terms in the document; analyze some of the basic ideas it puts forward, such as "consent of the governed''; explain the antecedents of those ideas; and analyze how they have been applied in society.

Children 'Not Equal'

By contrast, the national committee developing standards for civics education will set three performance levels, said Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education, which is spearheading that effort. He said the group's advisory committee voted 24 to 1 in favor of setting "high, higher, and highest'' levels of performance.

"If you come out with one level and it's realistic, it's going to be lower than one might wish to attain,'' he said. "The fact is kids are not equal in their physical and mental abilities.''

The arts standards-setting effort, meanwhile, is now planning to define single standards for children in kindergarten through 4th grade and for those in 5th through 8th grades. At the high school level, however, two standards--"advanced'' and "proficient''--are being recommended.

"The advanced level is for students who are more seriously pursuing one or more of the arts in high school,'' said John Mahlmann, the executive director of the Music Educators National Conference, which is leading the effort to set standards in four arts disciplines--dance, theater, visual arts, and music. The arts-standards group had previously favored setting two-level standards for all students.

Officials from the Education Department, which is providing some funding for all of the national-standards projects, said they have no plans to dictate what form the final standards will take.

Other Developments

The Nov. 17 meeting was the second for six of the seven standards groups supported by the department. Representatives from the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, which jointly will be defining standards in English, attended for the first time last week because their grant was not awarded until October.

Among other developments on the standards-setting efforts:

  • The arts-standards group plans to unveil its first draft standards in early March, Mr. Mahlmann said.
  • The groups charged with setting standards in history, geography, and civics were scheduled to hold hearings on their projects during the annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies in Detroit this week.
  • After getting off "on the wrong foot,'' the geography-standards effort has been reorganized, said Anthony de Souza, the group's new executive director. In addition to adding his position, Mr. de Souza said, the group has put together an advisory panel of scholars and has widened its scope to include environmental education.
  • An arm of the National Academy of Sciences that is developing science-education standards expects by the end of this month to complete prototype standards for a single area of the curriculum.

The document is expected to be made public at an Education Department conference for participants in the Eisenhower Science and Mathematics program that is scheduled for early next month.

The academy's Coordinating Council for Education already has released a document that outlines five philosophical principles that are expected to undergird the development of science standards. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1992.)

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