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Standards Groups Working for Common Definitions

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WASHINGTON--Nearly two years into the full-scale national effort to set standards for what students should know and be able to do, leaders of nine of the projects involved have begun to search for common terms to describe what standards are.

"We need to use the same labels to describe the same phenomenon,'' said Paul Lehman, who heads a task force working to set standards in the arts. "Otherwise, this is all going to be hopelessly confusing for teachers out there.''

One of the six national goals for education adopted in 1990 calls for all students to meet voluntary, "world class'' standards in core academic subjects. Since then, 11 efforts have sprung up to develop such standards in particular disciplines. Seven of the projects are being supported with federal funds.

With all of the standards-setting activity, however, has come a proliferation of sometimes confusing terminology. Some of the projects are developing what they call "content'' standards, while other efforts are considered "curriculum'' standards because they blend teaching activities with the descriptions of the knowledge students should acquire.

At the same time, other projects are pairing their content standards with "performance'' standards to define the "do'' part of what students should know and be able to do.

But what one group calls "performance,'' another calls "achievement.'' And one discipline has also introduced "process'' standards to describe skills students should acquire. (See Education Week, June 16, 1993.)

Little Guidance

The issue of common definitions was one of several topics of discussion during a June 25 meeting here of the standards projects' directors. The leaders of the subject-matter projects began meeting together last year in an effort to determine ways they might learn from one another and work together.

Last month's meeting, however, was the first to deal directly with the issue of common terms and definitions--a subject that a handful of critics and some of the standards projects themselves have raised from the outset.

The only guidance most standards groups have received in their efforts has come from the National Council for Education Standards and Testing, which said only that standards should define what "students should know and be able to do.'' The Education Department, in an effort to avoid dictating curricula, has offered little further direction.

Standards already developed for mathematics by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989 are considered "curriculum'' standards because they describe teaching activities as well as content. The group has also published separate teaching standards.

Misleading Label?

More recently, standards projects have begun to define their standards as "content'' standards to allay fears that the projects would attempt to create a national curriculum.

Some standards developers said that term may also be misleading.

"When you use the word 'content,' people come out and say they don't want a laundry list of facts,'' noted Charlotte K. Crabtree, who is directing the history-standards project.

To the history and geography projects, the term encompasses what students should know and be able to do.

But directors of the science project said they have something more "dynamic'' in mind that includes subject matter, the idea of "science as inquiry,'' scientific connections with other disciplines, and the role of science in human affairs.

In addition, nearly all of the groups have paired their content standards with performance standards for students. The arts group, though, calls its performance standards "achievement'' standards because that group fears the word "performance'' has a special connotation in that field.

And the term "process'' standards has been introduced by the history group as a way of describing the skills or "habits of mind'' to be acquired through the study of history.

Need To Be 'Useful'

"Our most immediate problem is turning out documents that are useful, not documents that are so varied from one another that a person has to know different languages to understand them,'' Charles Quigley, the director of the national civics-standards project, said at the meeting.

At his suggestion, the project directors agreed to draft proposed common definitions to bring the next meeting of all the standards-project directors in the fall.

However, representatives from some of the standards projects that have been underway since at least 1991 said they would be reluctant to change formats or definitions at this stage in the process.

"There's also fundamental differences in our fields,'' added Ms. Crabtree of the history-standards project. "It may be that you just have to allow for the differences in the way we've laid this out.''

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