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Standards Deviation: Benchmark-Setting Is Marked by Diversity

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As national efforts to determine what students should know and be able to do get into full swing, one point is becoming increasingly clear: Education standards will be anything but standardized.

Standards in mathematics, for example, blend content and teaching strategy, describing both what students should know and do and how best to teach it. Early versions of emerging measures of U.S. history and civics, in contrast, focus more on the content of their disciplines.

Benchmarks for the social studies are being developed with just $30,000 in funding from the National Council for the Social Studies this year, while the science-standards project will receive $3 million to create its content standards.

Some of the guidelines written so far specify in detail what students should know; others take a broad-brush approach to the task, sketching out larger themes on which to base instruction. Some of the boards that oversee the standards projects are dominated by teachers, while others rely more heavily on scholars.

The standards taking shape also vary in length, in format, and in whether they set one or more performance levels for students to achieve.

"There's a whole lot of standards-writing activity going on right now and this is being done at varying speeds and tempos, with varying amounts of funding and varying participation,'' said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education researcher who has followed the standards efforts. "We shouldn't assume by virtue of having national standards they will be uniformly of high quality.''

Experts are divided, however, over whether the variation being presented by the emerging standards is a problem or a virtue. Ms. Darling-Hammond, who is a co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Columbia University and a longtime skeptic about the overall standards effort, said differences in the quality of standards could become problematic if too much is pegged to them.

"It's not a problem until we start talking about basing a system of tests on them,'' she said. "We're talking about breaking the mold and what these standards might do is strengthen the mold.''

On the other hand, the benchmarks' variations may reflect the strength of the standards-setting process, said Diane S. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary for the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.

"The only way to avoid variation would be if somebody took charge and removed the empowerment from the projects,'' Ms. Ravitch said. But that would be a bad way to proceed, she suggested.

'World Class' Standards

Efforts to set national standards for student learning were launched in 1989 after President Bush and the nation's governors held their education summit. The leaders set down six national goals for education, one of which called for setting "world class'' standards for what students should know and be able to do in five academic subjects.

At the time, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics had already published its own vision for mathematics instruction. The President and the governors held it up as a model of world-class standards.

Since then, the federal government has helped to fund efforts to set standards in seven subject areas: civics, English, foreign languages, geography, history, science, and the arts.

Privately funded efforts are also under way to do the same for economics, social studies, and health and physical education.

Other projects, such as the New Standards Project and Pacesetter, are experimenting with their own approaches to developing what could become a national system of assessments and standards.

Science Effort Leads

Begun in 1991, the science-standards project was the first of the federally funded standards-setting efforts to start work. The project is backed by the National Academy of Sciences.

By the time the group's work is finished in 1994 or 1995, it could cost as much as $6 million, much of which would come from science-related federal agencies that are charged with fostering high-quality precollegiate science education.

The effort is costly, said Elizabeth K. Stage, the director of critique and consensus for the project, because the group is looking to develop more than criteria for what students should know and be able to do. Science standards-setters also want to develop guidelines for teaching that content and for assessing how well students are learning it. All of that, they say, should be in one document.

"We've argued the inseparability of assessment, content, and teaching all along,'' said Ms. Stage. "Much less attention has been paid to the N.C.T.M.'s professional-teaching standards than to its curriculum standards.''

But other projects, such as the foreign-language standards-setting effort, began work only this year, with considerably less funding. The four national organizations developing standards for foreign-language study are working with a $211,494 federal grant, although they hope to raise at least three times that amount to complete the project.

Some have yet to get any funding at all. The National Council for Economic Education, which was turned down for federal funding under the Bush Administration, is still seeking a major grant to put together standards for economics education by 1997.

Most of the projects, however, are far enough along to have produced at least one draft for all or some of their standards. And all appear to have been significantly influenced by the work of the N.C.T.M.

Creating a 'Thinking Person'

The math standards were developed between 1986 and 1989 by four working groups of math educators under the direction of the N.C.T.M.'s Commission on Standards for School Mathematics.

The first volume, "Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics,'' contains 28 standards deemed essential to the development of a technology-based, problem-solving approach to math education that stresses applications of the discipline to problems in an "information-based'' society.

The document lays out broad standards for what students should know and be able to in grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. And it follows those benchmarks with "vignettes'' that illustrate the ways in which the concepts can be interwoven into the curriculum.

The group has since produced a second volume that sets down guidelines for teaching mathematics and is working on a third document describing student-assessment standards.

Like the mathematics projects, early versions of standards in other subject areas stress the need for students to learn to think and reason deeply, to gather information, and to put that information together in concrete ways that help them draw their own conclusions about what it is they are learning.

"Basically, what we're trying to do is create a thinking person,'' said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who formerly headed the National Education Goals Panel.

Similarly, most of the standards attempt to illustrate to varying degrees just what that kind of learning might look like in a classroom. They want the standards to be readable and accessible to a wide audience.

Involving Stakeholders

In addition, all are trying to involve a wide cross-section of stakeholders in the effort.

The history-standards project, for example, has put together a 30-member panel to oversee its effort that includes leaders of eight national organizations responsible for history education in schools, historians, teachers, curriculum specialists, and teacher educators. A second, 29-member panel has representatives of major national organizations from both inside and outside of education.

Focus groups made up of members of the eight national organizations that make up the steering committee are also reviewing the standards, which are being written by groups of teachers working during school vacations.

The civics project has put together a similar structure but added focus groups of testing experts, international scholars, and teachers.

The emerging science standards have already been reviewed by an estimated 10,000 educators and scientists nationwide through that group's "critique and consensus'' process.

Other projects, due in part to budgetary constraints, have had more limited reviews of their efforts to date. The National Council for the Social Studies, for example, has primarily relied on its own members for feedback.

Some of the standards boards include business representatives and textbook publishers, while classroom teachers predominate on others. All of the boards have recruited some mix of academic experts, teachers, and practitioners of the discipline.

"I would say the key thing with all of them has got to be the extensiveness of the consensus process,'' noted Ms. Ravitch.

Content vs. Curriculum

But that is about where the similarities end.

The mathematics standards, for example, are considered more "curriculum'' than "content'' standards because they blend content with pedagogy. To a lesser degree, some of the other projects also include teaching activities, said John J. Kendall, a researcher who is tracking the standards efforts for the Mid-Continent Regional Education Laboratory in Denver.

"Often, instead of describing what students should know and be able to do, they are describing the activities that should take place in the classroom,'' he said. "This may reflect the knowledge and skill needed, but it is not a description of the knowledge and skills.''

In contrast, other emerging benchmarks are concentrating more on the "know and do'' aspects of their charge. For example, a sample of a draft standard for science states that, in learning about the conservation of matter and energy, students should understand that "the total mass of matter remains constant in any chemical or physical change.''

Ms. Stage noted that current science teaching frequently is criticized for being an exercise in memorizing a laundry list of definitions with no relationship to the inquiry-based process that characterizes science in practice. The effort in developing standards is designed to counter that perception.

"We are now saying 'content' standards because 'curriculum' is too loaded a word,'' she explained. "But what we mean by 'content' is substantially more dynamic than what that word usually means to people. It includes subject matter, the idea of 'science as inquiry,' scientific connections with other disciplines, and the role of science in human affairs.''

Mr. Kendall also acknowledged the danger that, by combining content and teaching activities, the activities could "become prescriptive and lose the sense of what they're about.''

Some other standards efforts, such as the New Standards Project, are putting a greater emphasis on what students can do.

Specificity Varies

The standards also vary in specificity. The draft social-studies standards identify broad themes to guide instruction; for example, one standard notes that programs in the middle grades should "include experiences that provide for the study of space and place.''

The draft history standards, in stark contrast, go into much greater detail. They state, for example, that students in grades 5 through 8 should understand "the institutions and practices of government created during the American Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundations of the modern American political system.''

That content prescription is also followed by performance standards that suggest that students should be able to "compare and contrast the powers apportioned to the states and to the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation.''

Charlotte K. Crabtree, the director of the history-standards project, said the level of detail in those standards reflects the nature of the discipline.

"History is unique because there's a body of content that is critical,'' she said. "You can't think at high levels if you don't have content.''

But all the projects say they want to avoid the kind of detail that results in the lists of knowledge found in E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy.

"We thought Mr. Hirsch raised the right questions but provided the wrong answers,'' said A. Graham Down, the chairman of the steering committee that is overseeing standards-setting in the arts.

"Even the musicians, who've been very specific, are cautious about saying every student has to know Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto,'' Mr. Down observed.

One Standard or Several?

The arts project is also unusual because it sets two performance levels--proficient and advanced--for students in high school, but one level for all other students. Some of the other standards projects are describing a single level of performance that all students should achieve.

"The notion of tracking students, that some students come in at a lower level, is something our teachers are fighting tooth and nail,'' Ms. Crabtree of the history-standards project said. "They say the minute we identify another level it becomes an excuse for administrators to track students and say, 'We'll give these students this level.'''

In the arts, however, standards-setters point out that some high school students are already beginning to specialize, while the vast majority of students now get little or no arts instruction in those grades.

The level of detail found in the standards also has implications for their length. All of the social-studies standards for K-12 students are contained in 83 pages. But the history standards have already surpassed that length, producing a 116-page progress report that includes only sample standards for U.S. history up until 1900 for students in 5th through 12th grades. The N.C.T.M.'S curriculum and evaluation document is 257 pages long.

Regardless of their length on paper, some of the draft standards may translate to more time teaching a particular subject than schools commonly provide.

As Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills of Vermont has observed, the standards he has so far seen "seem to assume that their particular subject area will have 40 percent or more of the child's education.'' (See Education Week, April 21, 1993.)

This is particularly true in the social sciences, where teachers and curriculum planners could be confronted with separate sets of benchmarks for civics, economics, geography, history, and social studies.

Some of the biggest increases in teaching time are expected to be called for in some of the less commonly taught subject areas.

"In order to achieve these standards, there would have to be more courses taught in civics and government,'' said Charles Quigley, the director of the civics-standards project. "This will require far more time in grades 9 to 12 to achieve than is currently devoted to civics and government now.''

Similarly, said Mr. Down of the arts-standards project, the draft proposal in that area could mean at least one year of arts for all high school students.

"We're not setting a national curriculum,'' explained Ms. Crabtree of the history-standards project, "but we are setting standards or goals by which all kids should be guided.''

Teachers Fear Overload

Nevertheless, the ambitious nature of some of the standards is causing some educators concern.

"What's going to happen when all these things become documents?'' asked Brian Curry, who is tracking the standards projects for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "The way it's going right now, I don't think it's going to be manageable.''

Many teachers fear that the standards-setting efforts will place competing, even untenable, burdens on them to teach every subject in great depth, observed Judy Young, the president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

"I think the teachers, to the extent that they are aware of [the scope of the endeavor], are totally blown away by it,'' she said.

While some of the burden of meeting the various standards could be made easier if policymakers adopted interdisciplinary approaches to teaching, Ms. Young suggested, that has not been a popular strategy in the past.

"There are ways for us to utilize math concepts in the teaching of physical education, for example, but we just don't do very much of that,'' she added.

The problem is that "there's nobody who's adding it all up and seeing what the impact is,'' said Christopher T. Cross, the executive director of the education initiative for the Business Roundtable.

"We could well have students relearning many of the same things that are relevant to different disciplines,'' he said.

Mr. Cross, who sits on the boards of two standards projects, has also expressed concern about a lack of attention to ways in which subjects might be integrated.

"In real life,'' he writes, "these subjects are not as clearly defined as the experts and advocates in a field might imagine or wish.''

An Integrated Approach

Mindful of those concerns--the potential demand on the curriculum and the need to integrate--the directors of most of the federally funded standards projects began meeting together this year.

One aim of the meetings is to look at ways in which the projects might be integrated at the elementary level, where a single teacher frequently is responsible for teaching a number of different subjects.

The history-standards project has already made plans to take a more integrated approach to its topic for students in kindergarten through 4th grade. That decision in part reflects the fact that history is taught in the context of social studies in the early grades, Ms. Crabtree explained. History courses become more dominant in the curriculum during the middle and high school years.

Ms. Stage added that differences inherent in the various disciplines are likely to produce a heterogeneous selection of standards documents.

"We are, of course, interested in making this whole move toward standards seem seamless,'' she said. "But there may be differences that may not be reconcilable.''

The project directors are also discussing possible plans for integrating standards in the humanities as an alternative for schools that take a more integrative approach to learning.

"There's no reason teachers can't put them together in a general humanities course so long as it fosters attainment of standards with the disciplines themselves,'' said Mr. Quigley of the civics project.

Some observers contend, however, that integration is also the only way to make all of the standards fit into the school day.

"It would be foolish to insist that all the standards be adopted in toto,'' said Robert Highsmith, who is director of the economics-standards project for the National Council on Economic Education. "On the other hand, all of the standards groups would want their standards to be so good that school districts would want to adopt them in toto.''

'One Piece at a Time?'

The differences among the projects have led to some confusion about what the efforts are about, some experts said.

"We've got to get some rigor into the whole effort,'' said Robert J. Marzano, the associate director of the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

"You get a mess when people try to identify standards and they mix all of these,'' he said.

"Typically what'll happen is a district will pay 10 teachers to sit down for a week,'' Mr. Marzano explained. "They sit down and try to make sense of all these books in front of them, and they just can't do it.''

The exercise may be particularly difficult if school systems attempt to adapt their own curricula to all of the standards at once. The majority of the national standards projects will be completing their work over the next two years.

More often, districts will attempt to reform only one or two subject areas each year, predicted Gordon Cawelti, the executive director of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, an umbrella group for national curriculum organizations.

"But that could take 10 years,'' he said.

Governor Romer, on the other hand, argued that state and local systems must approach all of the standards at once, regardless of the potential for overload.

"If you've got a guy who's got a bad heart, and bad kidneys, and bad lungs, what are you going to do?'' he asked. "Cure him one piece at a time?''

Mr. Romer said confusion over what standards mean has slowed down the process. Although 41 states claim to have adopted the math standards into their curriculum guidelines, he said, most of the teachers he has talked to are still unfamiliar with those standards.

No 'Tower of Babel'

For its part, the federal government has intentionally offered no rules on what a standard should look like. Federal officials have, however, begun to address the issue by drawing together standards projects in an effort to help them decide jointly on a common language.

"We don't need to proliferate jargon,'' said Mr. Quigley. "We don't need a Tower of Babel.''

The Clinton Administration's "goals 2000'' school-improvement proposal also calls for a National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which would certify the standards and would develop the criteria on which to judge them.

Already, the goals panel has drawn together a group of experts, many of them skeptical of the standards process, to make recommendations on the criteria.

To some degree, however, those involved in the standards efforts do not want the federal government to take too strong a hand.

"Ideally, you want these standards to come from the field,'' said Mr. Cross.

Ultimately, the quality of the standards will be judged by states and districts.

"Will all states require that foreign languages be taught?'' asked Mr. Cawelti of the A.C.R. "Will they require that arts be taught to the extent that they're required in the standards?''

"That'll be the real test and I haven't seen that question raised,'' he said. "But it will be.''

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