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G.A.O. Outlines Federal Steps To Promote Reform

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WASHINGTON--Congress could take a variety of steps to encourage districts to engage in systemwide reform, a study released by the General Accounting Office concludes.

Findings from the study of four districts that have undertaken systemic change were presented to the House Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee last week during a hearing on the federal role in systemic reform.

The G.A.O. defines systemwide reform as encompassing five components: goals or standards for all students, curricula tied to those goals, student assessments tied to the curriculum, high-quality instructional materials, and professional development.

Based on its review of efforts in Pittsburgh, San Diego, Johnson City, N.Y., and Moss Point, Miss., the G.A.O. concludes that, without federal and state actions, "maintaining commitment and finding resources for systemwide reform may be difficult for many districts.''

According to the study, voluntary national standards for what students should know and be able to do could provide a "starting place and direction'' for district-led reform efforts.

But, it cautions, "national standards and assessments alone are not likely to insure widespread reform.''

In addition, the G.A.O. suggests that Congress support the development of exemplary assessment methods appropriate to the new standards and insure the availability of technical assistance and professional development to districts engaged in or seeking to implement systemwide change.

The Role of Categoricals

The study also found that existing federal categorical programs, such as the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program, played little part in district reform efforts.

All four districts received funding from a variety of categorical programs. But district officials said that such programs, which are targeted to specific groups of at-risk students, were not supportive of reforms directed to improving the achievement of all youngsters.

In her testimony before the subcommittee, Linda G. Morra, the director of education and employment issues for the G.A.O., suggested that categorical programs be made more conducive to systemwide change. For example, she said, priority could be given to grant applicants who are serving targeted groups in the context of systemwide initiatives, while insuring that the needs of at-risk students are still met.

The report also suggests that the federal government could disseminate information about successful reform efforts and review the scope and functions of the federal research centers, laboratories, and technical-assistance centers to determine the extent to which they could assist in systemwide reform.

Hard To Assess Progress

According to the study, systemwide change is a long-term process led by dynamic and visionary superintendents and requiring extensive technical assistance, strong teacher support, and new methods of assessment to track its progress.

In the four districts studied, students made substantial achievement gains on norm-referenced, standardized tests of basic skills, which district officials pointed to as evidence of the reforms' success.

But, the G.A.O. cautions, because many factors affect students' test scores, no causal link could be made. In addition, it notes, such tests were not directly linked to the districts' curriculum and standards.

In the future, the Congressional agency suggests, districts would need to use a broader range of assessment instruments--such as portfolios and demonstrations--to track progress toward meeting the new, higher standards. But while the districts were developing such assessments, the study found, "aggregating results of these tests to measure progress is more difficult than using norm-referenced tests.''

In her testimony, Ms. Morra also cautioned that encouraging district-level action should not preclude the federal government from supporting state- or school-based reform efforts.

Copies of the report are available free of charge from the General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20884; (202) 512-6000. The stock number is GRD/HRD-93-97.

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