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The Rhetoric and Reality Of High Academic Standards

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As the national push to set high academic standards and create a related system of student assessments continues to gain momentum, educators such as Frances Collins are increasingly worried about the children they fear will be left behind.

At Ms. Collins's elementary school in Prince George's County, Md., these children might include immigrant students with a poor command of English, moderately disabled students for whom most academic study is a struggle, and some students whose disabilities are so severe that just learning to dress themselves becomes an educational goal. Altogether, such students make up nearly 40 percent of the students at Oxon Hill Elementary School, where Ms. Collins is the principal.

How, she wonders, will these students be able to meet rigorous new academic standards? And if tests are developed to reflect the standards, should those pupils take them along with their other classmates?

"It is no more reasonable to expect every child to be on grade level than it is to expect every 2nd grader to be 2 feet, 9 inches,'' Ms. Collins argued in a recent interview.

Around the country, educators and advocates who work with the nation's 4.8 million disabled students and 6.3 million limited-English-proficient students are asking the same kinds of questions.

While education reformers and federal officials have repeatedly stressed that national or state standards should be for all students, many teachers and academic experts in the education of disabled and L.E.P. students say they wonder if the rhetoric is outdistancing the reality.

"If 'all' really does mean 'all,' it would seem to me someone would be thinking a little more deeply or commenting a little more precisely on how they expect all students to meet the standards,'' said Richard Allington, a reading-education professor at the State University of New York at Albany. "Maybe what they mean is 'almost all' or 'practically all.'''

These educators fear that, aside from a general nod to the inclusion of all students, those who are disabled or are limited in their command of English will be largely an afterthought to the standards and assessment movement. And, they contend, a lack of attention to these children at this early stage in the standards-setting process could have harmful implications for them later on.

"Anytime you have a change in systems and start moving ahead and you leave kids behind, there's going to be a gap in attention and resources,'' said Martin Gould, an assistant professor of special education at Towson State University in Maryland. "These kids will be forever playing catch up.''

Mindful of the Issue

For their part, officials involved in the drive for a national system of standards and assessments say they are mindful of such concerns and will work to insure that no children are left out.

"For the longest time, we have excluded both categories of kids [disabled and L.E.P.] from most testing programs, and our expectations for them may have been too low,'' said Michael Cohen, an aide to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

The New Standards Project, an ongoing effort by 19 states and six school districts to develop an examination system based on high academic standards, also subscribes to the philosophy that high standards should apply to all students, said Jerrilee Fischer-Garza, a language-arts teacher with the San Diego Unified School District who serves the project as a resource teacher in performance-assessment development.

The project has appointed a committee to study equity issues, she noted, and it encourages teachers to adopt alternative methods when necessary to determine students' ability.

'We Do Mean All'

The movement to set high standards for what students should know and be able to do in school was officially launched at the national level at the 1989 education summit between President Bush and the nation's governors. Among the six national education goals set in the wake of that meeting, one called for students to meet "world class'' standards in five core academic subjects.

Now, the federal government is helping to support efforts to set voluntary standards in seven subjects: the arts, civics, English, foreign languages, geography, history, and science. National standards are being developed, or have already been developed, in five other other subject areas as well.

Moreover, a number of states on their own have set curriculum standards and are beginning to test how well their students are meeting them.

Setting high academic standards is also a centerpiece of President Clinton's "goals 2000'' school-improvement proposal, which would set up a national panel to approve them. The measure would also encourage states to develop tests and standards on their own that reflect the national models.

Almost from the beginning, the architects of the standards movement have said standards are for everyone.

"When we say 'all,' we really do mean 'all,''' Secretary Riley reiterated during a national gathering of special educators in April.

Some Representation

Yet, of all the projects that are setting national standards in specific subjects, only two so far have recognized disabled students in any explicit way, according to James G. Shriner, a senior researcher with the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota, which is tracking the standards efforts.

The science-standards project, in response to concerns that no disabled scientists were on the national panel overseeing the project, has formed a focus group of scientists with disabilities to advise on its work. And the English-standards project recruited a representative from the Council for Exceptional Children, a national group serving disabled and gifted students, for its board of directors.

Similarly, some of the standards projects have representatives on their boards from groups serving non-English-speaking populations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. But advocates for L.E.P. students contend that the needs of students whose first language is not English have not yet been directly addressed.

"I look at all of the standards projects funded by the Department of Education and I wonder, 'When are they going to start thinking about language-minority and limited-English-proficient kids? When the standards are done?,''' said Denise McKeon, the chairwoman of a task force on language-minority students that was formed by the organization Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

"I think that's a little late,'' she added.

Avoiding 'Extremes'

Education reformers say the omissions, for the most part, have been neither deliberate nor inadvertent.

Disabled and L.E.P. students "were not left out in the sense that no one was paying attention to them and that this was an elitist model,'' Martin Orland, the director of the National Education Goals Panel, said. "It's just that I don't think we have focused yet on the nuts and bolts of how to do it.''

Advocates for those students and education reformers alike concede the "nuts and bolts'' question is extraordinarily difficult.

"You want to avoid the two extremes,'' Mr. Cohen said. "One extreme is setting unrealistically high standards, and, at the same time, you want to avoid the other end, which is continuing to set low expectations for these students so they are not challenged.''

There is also a fear that standards would have to be "watered down'' to accommodate special populations, Mr. Orland said.

"That's something that has to be kept in mind just as the needs of the disability group has to be kept in mind,'' he said.

Unintended Effects

The advocates for disabled and limited-English-proficient students say "watering down'' is definitely not what they have in mind.

"What we want to see is improvement across the quartiles,'' said James E. Ysseldyke, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes.

To achieve that end, Mr. Ysseldyke and others said, careful attention must be given to the implications of standards-setting efforts for some of the students who are most in need of extra help in school.

"Once you start creating standards, presumably you're doing it to hold somebody accountable for something,'' said Margaret McLaughlin, the director of the National Center for Policy Options at the University of Maryland.

"If you start testing kids and these tests in any way become public information, then pressure comes down on the schools to do well,'' she added.

Special educators and other advocates for the children potentially left behind say the added pressure of such "high stakes'' testing may prompt some school administrators, for example, to look for ways to prevent students who might not do well on the tests from taking them. Such moves, these advocates warn, could lead to the further isolation of such students from the rest of the school program.

"You're going to see attention move away from the whole notion of inclusion and integration for disabled children,'' Ms. McLaughlin said.

Some children may already have experienced exclusion as a result of high-stakes testing programs, some research evidence suggests.

Exclusion Rates Vary

A recent study of eight districts in New York State found, for example, that the number of students who were either retained in grade or were placed in special-education programs increased after the state began using school report cards to disclose individual schools' scores on a statewide 3rd-grade reading test. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1993.)

At the national level, Mr. Ysseldyke pointed out, some of the most prominent data-collection programs exclude 40 percent to 50 percent of disabled students.

Moreover, those exclusion rates vary widely among states--even when national testing programs provide clear guidelines on which students may be excluded.

For example, about 1 percent of students in a 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress sample did not take the test because of their poor English skills. At the state level, however, the exclusion rates for limited-English-proficient students ranged from zero percent in West Virginia to 5 percent in California.

Some students clearly are not able to take an hourlong examination. At her school, for example, Ms. Collins said she has seen students taking part in Maryland's statewide testing program cover their testing booklets with drawings or put their heads on their desks.

Special Accommodations

The variation in test-exclusion rates among states and school districts suggests that many more students may be able to take such tests if given the opportunity, researchers and advocates for disabled and L.E.P. children say.

Depending on test-takers' individual needs, they may require special accommodations such as Braille versions of tests, permission to use calculators, extra time, or the opportunity to take tests in their native languages.

"It seems to me, if we want to have a national sample, we should include everyone,'' Mr. Shriner of the National Center on Educational Outcomes said.

Mr. Orland of the goals panel added, "You tend to pay attention to what you measure.''

It is not, however, a matter of simply including all students in test-taking samples.

For example, while schools typically are allowed to exclude language-minority students one time from a state or national testing program, Ms. McKeon of TESOL said, studies show that it takes a minimum of four years for new, non-English-speaking immigrants to achieve the "school-language proficiency'' of their peers.

Moreover, Ms. McKeon said, the countries from which many students are emigrating may teach content in a different order.

"For example, math is usually out of order for kids from Central and South America,'' Ms. McKeon said. "We want our kids to meet the same standards; we're just not sure they're going to be able to do it in the same way as everybody else.''

Differing Strategies

Beyond issues of testing, special educators and teachers who work with language-minority students say the standards-setting movement could also have implications for the kinds of teaching strategies used with such children in the classroom.

While some of the standards being developed so far focus entirely on spelling out what students need to know, others have fused both content and teaching strategy.

The standards already developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, favor a "constructivist'' approach to teaching in which students are encouraged to come to their own conclusions about math through the use of manipulatives and hands-on activities.

The problem, according to some reseachers, is that such an approach may not work for all students.

"With diverse learners, they often benefit from a more teacher-directed approach,'' said Douglas Carnine, the director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, based at the University of Oregon. "They may need more organized application and review of the material, and they often benefit from being shown how to use strategies and information in a more explicit way.''

"You can't have a committee dictate one way of learning,'' he added.

Getting Heard

To some extent, such concerns are beginning to generate responses from education reformers and federal officials.

Researchers from the National Center on Educational Outcomes, for example, drafted language describing ways to accommodate disabled students for the legislative report slated to accompany President Clinton's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act.''

The language suggests that the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, the proposed body for reviewing the new standards, not approve a set of standards unless "there's a clear indication that they're for all kids and there's a clear indication that all kids with disabilities are going to be accommodated,'' Mr. Ysseldyke said.

The U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, prompted by a directive from Congress last year, has begun work on a policy to use in all its testing programs that would provide clear guidelines on whom can be excluded from its tests.

And, although it might not go as far as some researchers and advocates would like, the policy is expected to direct schools to "err on the side of inclusion'' when making those decisions, according to Emerson J. Elliott, the department's commissioner for education statistics.

Alternative Tests

At least two states--Kentucky and Maryland--have begun to grapple with ways to include more disabled students in their student-testing programs. In both states, schools are now required to report how many students are excluded and to show why they are excluded.

Special educators and test-developers in those states are also developing an alternative, portfolio-based test for students whose disabilities make it unrealistic for them to take part in the regular testing program.

"It might be that we have a daily schedule a student is supposed to accomplish,'' Scott Trimble, the director of the division of accountability for the Kentucky education department, said. "The portfolio would have to contain evidence the child was able to do this.''

In Kentucky, those tasks are then assigned a weight so that disabled students' scores can be counted along with those of their nondisabled peers at the same school.

Similarly, NAEP plans to test the first Spanish-language version of one of its tests next year in Puerto Rico.

"We're treating this as a special study,'' said Gary Phillips, the associate commissioner for the education-assessment division of the National Center for Education Statistics. "I expect this will eventually lead to a larger-scale effort in the states to provide a Spanish-language version of NAEP.''

Need for Clearer Signals

Even with some promising approaches, the efforts to insure the inclusion of all students in the emerging system of national standards and assessments face a difficult road.

"There's clearly a greater awareness of the need to accommodate kids with disabilities,'' Mr. Ysseldyke of the National Center on Educational Outcomes said, "but there's also a whole lot of frustrations surrounding that.''

Part of the problem, he said, is that special educators, at least, have given education reformers no clear signal on how to approach the matter.

In an attempt to provide some of that direction, Mr. Ysseldyke and his colleagues sketched some possible options for the standards efforts. They include:

  • Setting a range of performance levels for each standard that could encompass gifted students as well as those with disabilities;
  • Suggesting that any tests based on the standards measure disabled students' performance either through their individualized education plans or by tracking their "personal best'' educational performance;
  • Setting "standards for standards'' that would specify the ways in which the standards-setting efforts must account for disabled students;
  • Allowing schools to show they are meeting the standards by showing improvement over their existing average achievement levels; and
  • Specifying that any tests based on the standards allow for use of special accommodations, such as taking the test in a separate setting or using a Braille version.

But each one of those approaches has "clear strengths and weaknesses,'' Mr. Cohen, the aide to Secretary Riley, pointed out.

Even if they have no definite strategy to offer, Mr. Cohen and others said, educators working with disabled and limited-English-proficient students should be part of the national discussion on education standards and assessment measures.

In the end, Ms. McLaughlin of the University of Maryland said, if disabled children and other special populations "cannot participate in new high-stakes standards, then what else is there for them?''

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