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Goals Panel Ponders Criteria for Student Standards

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Washington

Four years into the process of setting national standards for what students should know and be able to do in key academic areas, a national panel of experts last week unveiled the first detailed advice on what those standards should look like.

The recommendations, the product of four months of deliberation by the group, were announced here in a report to the National Education Goals Panel.

"These are going to help really frame our thinking on standards,'' said Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine, who heads the goals panel, a bipartisan group formed to oversee the nation's progress in meeting the education goals set by President Bush and the nation's governors in 1990.

The development of national standards for student learning has been under way since 1989, when mathematics standards were released by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Picking up on that idea, the national education goals call for setting "world class'' student-achievement standards in five subjects.

Such benchmarks have been completed or are being developed in at least 11 subject areas.

The Clinton Administration's "goals 2000: education America act'' bill currently before Congress would establish for the first time a National Education Standards and Improvement Council to direct those efforts. It would set criteria for the new standards and review and certify them.

The task of the experts who presented their report to the goals panel last week was to suggest what those criteria should be.

Representing a mix of opinions on the standards issue, the 15-member group of experts included proponents of standards-based reform, such as Iris Carl, the past president of the math group, as well as prominent critics; a U.S. Olympic official experienced in determining world-class athletic standards; scholars such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose theories on "flow'' learning have attracted international attention; and a British-born academic who has studied European standards-setting efforts.

Too Many Standards

Among its more controversial recommendations, the group says that while NESIC could review a wide variety of standards, it should give its stamp of approval to national standards in only eight subjects. The subjects are the arts, civics, English, foreign languages, geography, history, math, and science.

That leaves out standards now being developed for social studies, economics, and health and physical education.

"One of the biggest concerns we had was about standards proliferation,'' said Shirley M. Malcolm, the chairwoman of the group and the head of the education directorate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "The numbers could blow up operationally, and the standards really would be meaningless.''

The report also attempts to clear up confusion over the definition of the terms "content'' standards and "performance'' standards. Both types could be certified by the new NESIC panel, and the standards projects already under way use varying definitions of each.

The report suggests that content standards be defined as both the knowledge and the skills that students should learn in a discipline. Performance standards, on the other hand, should describe "how good is good enough'' and specify the nature of the evidence required to measure that, such as an essay or project.

"If every one of you comes through with a different definition, the people who have to make sense of what is going on will be driven to absolute craziness,'' Ms. Malcolm told directors of the standards projects at a separate meeting last week.

The group of experts also urged that subject-matter standards be:

  • Parsimonious, focusing only on the important and enduring knowledge and skills students should have;
  • Useful to average citizens as well as educators;
  • Reflective of a broad consensus and balanced between the enduring tensions in a field of study;
  • Clear enough to stand "the barbershop and beauty-salon test''; and
  • Assessable, accurate, flexible, and appropriate to students' developing abilities.

Problems for Projects

Separate standards developed by the states, the report says, should be at least as rigorous as the national standards in order to be certified.

Moreover, states should show that, taken as a whole, their standards represent an adequate "core'' of learning that makes sense and is feasible for schools to implement.

A few of the report's recommendations could pose problems for some current national-standards projects.

"This gives us pause about several elements of our standards, and we may have to go back and revisit them,'' said Martharose Laffey, who represented social studies at the project-directors' meeting.

For now, however, the suggested criteria are "only as good as the strength of the ideas in them,'' Ms. Malcolm said, noting that the NESIC panel would decide whether to adopt the criteria.

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