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Standards and Diversity Down Under

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Among American educators, the idea that we need tougher assessment to produce higher educational standards is high on the policy agenda. Advocates argue that content-based assessments are needed to drive improvements in school achievement. The Clinton Administration has recommended legislation inspired by this view; its "goals 2000'' bill proposing national tests and national standards is pending in Congress. Many fear, however, that this intrusion could weaken the capacity of our school systems to respond to the diversity of our student population.

Those on both sides of this debate could get some useful suggestions from 12,000 miles away. Australia is a large and sparsely populated country, but like us, it has a federal system of government in which the states are mainly responsible for school. Although Americans think of Australia as peopled by ÀemigrÀes from the United Kingdom, the past 40 years have brought major immigration from Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Australian schools, therefore, face most of the diversity-bred problems and opportunities familiar to America's educators.

State governments in Australia have a substantial influence over the K-12 curriculum. This influence is most strongly exercised at the grade-12 level, where state statutory assessment authorities determine the requirements for high school graduation, set the final examinations, and monitor school-based assessments for every school in the state. Students in grade 12 are expected to work very hard, and they do. High stakes are attached to their performance, because Australia's state-based graduation assessments actually double as college-admissions tests. In fact, these assessments exclusively determine which university or college a young Australian is entitled to enter.

Fifteen years ago, a visitor to Australia would have observed a system of schooling that was far more similar to the British system upon which it was originally modeled. Typically, half of each cohort of Australian youths left school for work or apprenticeship training at the end of grade 10, and only one-third stayed on for the last two years. In many ways, the make-or-break examinations at the end of grade 12 were similar to the A-levels in Britain. University specialists specified what had to be taught in each subject at the grade-12 level. Every subject in the curriculum led to an external exam, and students did not graduate unless they passed a specified number of subjects.

From the late 1970's on, structural, technological, and economic changes led to tighter youth-labor markets and increased educational requirements for most entry-level jobs. As the levels of youth unemployment increased rapidly in the late 1970's and early 1980's, educational reformers argued with ever greater justification that the grade-12 exams were narrow and discriminatory, exclusively serving the interests of a minority destined for higher education. The majority--young people who needed a graduation certificate as a qualification for work--were being ignored.

Under increasing pressure to improve high school completion rates, Australia's educational reformers spent many years searching for new ways of conceptualizing the grade-12 curriculum and its assessment. They wanted to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse student population while at the same time sustaining the high standards of performance that employers and universities traditionally expected of graduates. A key idea emerging from their work was that of a negotiated curriculum. This curriculum would allow students and teachers to negotiate the specific topics they studied, provided these topics were consistent with a broad umbrella of requirements defined for each subject. This idea was interpreted very differently in the three reform-oriented states that took it up, but in all states it led to a more inclusive curriculum.

For example, in the state of Victoria, a completely new senior secondary curriculum was phased in between 1988 and 1992. The Victorian assessment strategy produces comparable grades across schools, but also allows considerable curriculum flexibility at the school level. The new system--known as the Victorian Certificate of Education, or V.C.E.--is not based on testing, but rather on the completion of work requirements. In the past, grade-12 students prepared obsessively for the final exams. Now the completion of work requirements--known as Common Assessment Tasks, or CAT's--is the key to success.

Without a basis for comparison there can be no such thing as a "standard,'' so the Victorians created a series of CAT's for each subject. These enable teachers to report the levels of achievement of their students within a common framework. Although some CAT's are assessed under exam conditions, over half of each student's grades (and well over half of a student's work) involves conducting research and writing reports, making oral or audio-visual presentations, constructing working models, or preparing design briefs. Comparison of student grades for each CAT across schools is achieved in two ways.

First, the Common Assessment Tasks are based on common task requirements, as the name implies. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board built clear standards and high expectations into the system's curriculum, and codified these standards in terms of grading criteria for the CAT's. For example, in Australian history, the "Research Report CAT'' must be a written report of 1,500 words in length and students must analyze a variety of primary and secondary sources, present ideas as a historian would, and explore the problems of making meaning of the past.

Second, all 12th-grade teachers in Victoria are required to recalibrate their initial grades by attending district-level verification-panel meetings. At these meetings, teachers engage in a series of "blind regradings'' of samples of students' common assessment tasks from other schools. This process helps teachers internalize CAT grading standards. Because common criteria are used to guide teacher judgments, agreement on grade levels for the work of students from different schools is possible. The verification process also serves as a form of teacher development, as teachers gain inspiration from viewing the work of each others' students and subject their own work to the professional review of their peers.

The designers of the Victorian Certificate of Education were determined to create a system that would serve a diverse student population. A key feature of the system, therefore, is its flexibility. Most grade-12 subjects have a common content that all students are expected to cover; a student's knowledge of this material is assessed under exam conditions. But in each subject a major part of the student's work is a product which is negotiated with the teacher, allowing students to develop an in-depth understanding of a topic that interests them deeply. For example, the history-curriculum unit that requires " ... an examination of the construction and representation of Australia's cultural identity over time ... '' could be approached through looking at the Australian film industry, the role of sport in national identity, the influence of aboriginal culture, or Australia's changing relations with the British monarchy--depending on the student's interests.

From her firsthand observations of this system, the Australian researcher Cherry Collins observes that under the V.C.E., classroom practice has changed. With the focus on work requirements, she says, students do more and teachers talk less, at least to the class as a whole. The teacher's job has developed beyond instructor into mentor, explainer, coach, co-problem-solver, reader of drafts and redrafts, suggester, and encourager. It is hard work but different work with the student at center stage. The new problem, says Ms. Collins, is to get students to produce, not simply to remember.

While Australia's reform-oriented states like Victoria are committed to sustaining high educational standards, they are also convinced that tests alone cannot do this. Rather, it is the purposive and meaningful work put in by students--the school tasks and home tasks that students do day in and day out, and the support they get to redraft, rework, refine--that determines how well they will perform in the long run. To support this purposive work, teachers need to be transformed from instructors to mentors, and this demands a substantial investment in professional development.

In America, as in Australia, standards and assessment issues are necessarily intertwined, but in different ways. In America, "standards'' is taken to mean a return to a carefully defined body of knowledge that is essentially a launching platform for a good liberal-arts and sciences education. Our debate assumes that these particular bodies of learning should be defined, required, studied, and assessed. This way of defining standards assumes a view of knowledge as a given and of a good teacher as a faithful exponent of what is known. It allows limited negotiations at the school or classroom level about the topics and issues students might address. It is difficult to address diversity within this formulation.

The proposed changes to our assessment systems stand in contrast to the main assumption of American schools--that local school districts are free to establish the nature and extent of learning within a broader framework provided by the state. Although both parties in this debate recognize that curricular freedom has created a hodgepodge of learning priorities and tended to transfer responsibility for curriculum to the textbook publishers, the critics of the new move to national standards and assessments are seeking a formula for a less radical change. Australia might provide just the model they need.

Harold Howe 2nd is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Margaret Vickers, a policy analyst from Australia, is completing a doctorate in education at Harvard.

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