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Student-Achievement Standards

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It is education's dirty little secret. Whatever school administrators, teachers, and educational-policy experts have said over the past 30 years about the "high standards'' we have for student achievement, the fact is that the standards we have had have been either too vague or too malleable to be meaningful. In most cases, we have been able to adjust the "standard'' to suit whatever we have perceived as the "special'' circumstances of each student. In an effort to "meet the needs'' of every student, we have made the very concept of achievement standards meaningless for most students.

The tests we use betray our discomfort with real standards. Standardized tests usually do not measure what schools are purportedly trying to teach. These tests are based not on standards of achievement but on what a range of students in a certain grade know at a given point in time. The Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was held until quite recently to measure "aptitude'' rather than achievement, is often used to compare school systems or states. Such comparisons are inaccurate for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that the percentages of students who take them vary substantially among states and school systems. There are tests that actually do measure student achievement against standards, but these (for example, the Advanced Placement exams) are usually given to a very small percentage of students. Nevertheless, assessments like the A.P. provide a model of what assessments based on clear standards might look like.

The lack of student-achievement standards (lack of clear expected outcomes for students) has meant that we have defined our needs and our success in terms of inputs. A Nation at Risk's recommendations are a good example of this focus on inputs. Its call for "four years of English ... three years of mathematics ... three years of science ... three years of social studies ... one-half year of computer science'' typifies the inputs focus. More seat time has no necessary correlation with more learning. State education departments look at all kinds of inputs and sometimes at student achievement, but only at a very minimal level (that is, basic competency).

It is important to recognize that most of the countries around the world with whom we are competing and will be competing in the future do have achievement standards. They may have different standards for students who are going to universities than for those who are not, but in both cases standards are high. And, in these countries, student achievement is assessed against these standards.

There are a number of reasons why we in the United States do not have student-achievement standards. For one thing, we closely guard local control, resisting national and state interference in each locality's right to educate its own children however it wants. As long as a school system can satisfy the people in its community it is seen to be doing its job, whatever levels of achievement its students meet. Another reason is that many who work in schools do not want standards to which they are expected to hold all their students. The dirty little secret here is that many of us believe that some types of students cannot meet high standards. While it is true that the United States has more racial and cultural diversity in our schools than any other developed country, many of the students whom we would exempt from meeting high standards do not come from racial or cultural minorities. At the same time, many from these minorities do achieve at high levels. By not having clearly stated standards, we are able to avoid facing up to these facts by exempting from standards--ad hoc--any student who, for whatever reason, is not achieving.

At the heart of all the reasons and arguments against standards is an overwhelming emphasis on differences. If schools define their central mission as "meeting each student's needs,'' then there can be no common standards of achievement, because differences in students' needs are potentially infinite. American parents often seem more concerned that their children like their teachers and enjoy their schools and have plenty of free time than that they achieve academically at high levels. They want schools to meet their children's needs, and they consider their children (each of their children) unique. This often means that one of their children is "good at math'' or foreign languages and achieves at high levels in those areas while another may not be "good,'' and can't be expected to achieve, in these areas. When differences dominate, innate ability is considered more important than hard work, and standards for all students make little sense.

Standards must be based on the idea that there are things all students (with exceptions for students with particular handicaps) should know and be able to do. In this regard, similarities are more important than differences. All kinds of variation is possible in how children acquire this learning and in how schools convey it; this is where real differences are accommodated. It is even possible, though probably difficult and expensive, to have variation in how students demonstrate what they have learned. But there is a great deal that every student should know and be able to do. Students and schools and communities can and should be judged on how well students are meeting standards that all students are expected to meet.

The reason we are all talking about standards right now is that there has been a great deal of national pressure over the past few years to actually increase the achievement of all our students in all academic subjects. This means not just the students in inner cities and isolated rural areas, not just minority and low-socioeconomic-group students whose achievement we have bewailed for years (but excused because of their "special needs'') but all our regular, average students who have seemed to us to be doing well. What most of the public has now learned, and many have called their representatives in Congress about, is that the abilities of the frontline workforce in many competitor countries are substantially higher than they are in the United States, that these countries are educating everybody to higher levels than we are, and that one of the main differences between us and them is standards: They have them and we don't. The international argument is summed up in the title of a book published by the National Center on Education and the Economy: "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.''

What the national movement for student-achievement standards is saying is that outputs--what students actually know and are able to do--are more important than inputs, and that the first step toward judging outputs is establishing standards for students' academic achievement. This movement is firmly established on the national level. Last year, a Congressional staff person who has worked with education policy for 25 years called the shift in focus from inputs to outputs a "sea change.'' Another indication of national commitment to a focus on standards is that both the Bush and the Clinton administrations have called for national standards and assessments. While those of us who have worked in education for 20 or 30 years have seen many trends come and go (and several come around again once or twice), I believe that this one is not just a trend but what T.S. Kuhn called a "paradigm shift''--a whole new way of looking at education with a whole new set of expectations about what schools and students ought to be doing and showing.

To mean anything, standards must have two qualities: They must be high and they must be clear. They must be world-class, meaning that they demand of our students at least as much as is demanded of students in competitor countries, and they must be understandable to teachers, parents, and everyone else, because the entire community must be involved in insuring that students meet them.

The standards must also be measurable, but not by the kinds of tests we are used to. Instead, we need to develop assessment systems that ask students to demonstrate their deep understanding of what they have learned and of their ability to apply it. This is not an arcane idea; many of our competitor nations do this. It is contrary to received opinion in the education business, but I am convinced that high standards and good authentic assessments can and will drive strong curricula and good instruction. Certainly, standards must precede anything else. We cannot substantially increase achievement until we have a clear idea of what achievement we expect. Once the standards are clear, it would be best to develop assessments, curriculum, and instructional-staff development in tandem. However, good, strong, authentic assessment alone can improve instruction. The kind of assessment I mean is the kind that, if teachers teach to the test all year, it is good instruction.

Much of the opposition to standards comes from those who believe they are defending the rights of the educationally disadvantaged. They argue that these students are not now meeting even minimal standards and that having higher standards for them without first improving the quality of education these students receive would have a negative effect on their achievement. I disagree. For one thing, having high and clear standards that everyone is aware of (including parents and guardians as well as politicians) will increase pressure to improve instruction for the educationally disadvantaged. For another, if we wait until all the inputs are in place, we will never get to the outputs--the standards. I remember the great psychologist Kenneth Clark referring to a program that would exempt some students from meeting standards as "Jim Crow education''--and he was right.

It is actually surprising to me that anyone opposes high and clear standards for student achievement. After all, we have standards for performance of all kinds of employees--including teachers and administrators. Yet we believe students are too different from each other for there to be standards for them.

Nationally, there has been a great deal of talk and a fair amount of action on standards. The several federally funded projects in each of the disciplines are proceeding apace, as is the National Standards Project led by Lauren Resnick and Marc Tucker. The Educational Testing Service is developing "Pacesetter'' exams which, on the model of the Advanced Placement test but at an achievement level expected of all students, will include curriculum-based exams in several disciplines. Several states have also embarked on standard-setting, but I have not yet been very impressed with their results.

I believe that local school systems need to be more involved in developing standards and assessments. School systems are where education actually happens, and where standards will be meaningful. Students in actual schools will either meet or not meet actual standards. Leadership in the standards movement should come from local school leaders as well as from national figures. For one thing, we--local school leaders--have a real stake in the movement, because we are the ones who will be held responsible if our students do not meet the high standards. For another thing, we have a clearer understanding of what can be done in real schools with real students in real communities. The national and state projects will force us to keep the standards high, but we need to be players in the national movement.

In Fairfax County, Va., we are developing high and clear achievement standards for all students, and we are lucky to have funding from the Mobil Foundation to do so. Everyone involved with instruction in our school system and everyone who lives in our community is getting an opportunity to comment on these developing standards. Once the standards are in place, they will drive assessment, curriculum, and staff development in the Fairfax County public schools and possibly many other aspects of the school system. For instance, one area of school-system operation that may be affected by standards is organization. If the focus is on outputs (what students know and are able to do) rather than on inputs (how many years of a subject students must "take,'' for example), then schools may have more flexibility as to how students meet standards while being stringently expected to insure they do meet them. This will mean that the relationships between individual schools and central school-system offices (and, possibly, between teachers and principals) will be different than they are now.

Our standards-setting project--the Fairfax Framework for Student Success--will be a national model and will affect national standard setting, just as national standard setting has affected the Fairfax framework. In Fairfax County and elsewhere in the United States, the focus on standards and the shift from inputs to outputs is going to make a very big difference in our young people's achievement and our national competitiveness. It will make an especially big difference in the lives of those students now achieving at the lowest levels. A poor and distraught child suffers an obvious impediment to learning, but if we, as educators, take the position that the child is incapable of learning until those social or emotional needs are met, we may doom the child never to learn. To believe that no child can achieve high standards unless all his or her emotional needs are met first contributes to the "lowered-expectations syndrome'' that depresses student achievement. In actuality, academic achievement could be the only tangible success in an otherwise defeating existence as well as the only way out of that existence. We must seriously expect high achievement of all students.

Our dirty little secret is out, and all of us who work in schools need to acknowledge it and work to change the situation it describes. High and clear standards for all students will help every student. I call on teachers, administrators, and school boards to get behind the national-achievement-standards movement and to provide more leadership for that movement. The time has come for those in public education to create the vision of our young people's future and to do what needs to be done to make that vision a reality.

Robert R. Spillane is the superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., public schools.

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