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A Matter of Definition: What Are 'World Class' Standards?

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When students in Maryland took their state's performance assessments this spring, so did 5th graders in Taiwan and the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

The cooperative agreement--under which more than 2,000 children in each country took a translation of the Maryland tests in science and mathematics--is part of that state's answer to the question of whether its youngsters are performing at "world class'' standards.

A primary goal of the standards movement in this country is that students should be expected to meet academic standards that are world class or internationally competitive.

But despite the rhetoric, there is no consensus on what world class means, or how Americans will know when their children have reached such levels.

As a result, many of the groups developing standards and assessments have had to tackle such problems on their own. To do so, they are using case studies and statistical analyses, comparing translations of other nations' exams and textbooks, soliciting critiques of their standards from abroad, and, in the case of Maryland, testing students.

'Good Enough' Performance

This month, the New Standards Project--a joint effort of the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh--will present its governing board with an analysis of what students are expected to know and be able to do in math at the end of common schooling in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

To get at the question of what constitutes world-class standards, the researchers looked at the structure of the education systems in those countries; their assessments, curricula, and textbooks; what counts as "good enough'' performance; and the portion of students who meet such goals. Other subjects and countries will follow.

Last month, the American Federation of Teachers issued the first in a series of reports on world-class standards that looked at the biology exams taken by college-bound students in England and Wales, France, Germany, and Japan. (See Education Week, May 25, 1994.)

"It's been very difficult to get a handle on what world class actually means,'' said Matthew Gandal, the principal author of the report. "Most of what we've seen are studies showing U.S. students ranking near the bottom on international comparisons. And our teachers want to know, why is that the case? What are other countries expecting their kids to do?''

As part of determining what students should know and be able to do in civics, the Center for Civic Education in Los Angeles had its draft standards reviewed by more than 40 scholars from advanced industrialized democracies, as well as from emerging ones in Eastern Europe. Foreign scholars also reviewed the voluntary national standards for arts education.

Other studies are looking at the school-leaving or college-entry standards for other nations. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study is analyzing curriculum and student performance in nearly 50 countries.

Roots in Economics

The interest in how other countries are doing stems in part from an assumption that education affects economic competitiveness.

"To the extent that we believe the education system plays a major role in contributing to our economic productivity, and we believe that other countries are more productive than we are, then we need to look at their education systems,'' said Ramsey Selden, the director of the state education-assessment center at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Others argue that by studying educational practices and performance abroad, Americans can gain new insights into how to reform their own schools.

But there is no existing set of standards marked "world class.'' Figuring out how to proceed is proving to be part common sense, part detective work.

One question is which countries to look at in attempting international comparisons. Most policymakers are interested in the educational performance of other leading industrialized nations, such as Germany and Japan.

Americans often like to compare themselves with Britain, another English-speaking nation.

Then there are the countries that are considered leaders in a particular content field, either because their students perform near the top on international measures or because they are widely recognized for innovations in pedagogy.

In mathematics, for instance, the Netherlands is widely viewed as a leader in curriculum reform.

And when it comes to English-language standards, suggested Lauren B. Resnick, the co-director of the New Standards Project, Americans would do well to look at the Indian state of Kerala.

Although English is not the home language of most students there, she said, it is the medium of instruction in most high schools. And 75 percent of the students graduate. The lessons learned from such a comparison, Ms. Resnick remarked, might prove useful for American states with a high proportion of students whose primary language is not English.

Limited Comparisons Urged

Last year, a report to the National Education Goals Panel recommended that the new National Education Standards and Improvement Council offer guidance to states and professional groups on how to demonstrate that their standards are at least as challenging as those in other nations.

The task force urged that each standards project identify three or four countries that have performed well on international surveys of school achievement or that have shown leadership in pedagogy.

An appendix to the report by Harold Noah, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, also suggested that such comparisons be limited in the types of schools and grade levels examined.

"Those making the comparisons,'' he argued, "should be given fairly wide latitude also in selecting which aspects of their proposed standards they wish to focus on: depth, breadth, up-to-dateness, emphasis on theory, apparent utility for future study or work, capacity to interest or motivate students, incorporation of practical or lab work, assessability, etc.''

Context Is Key

Others warn that international benchmarks are useless without a cultural perspective. Not every country is intent on educating the mass of its people to a high standard, for instance, or on preparing most young people for college.

Britain has high expectations for students preparing to enter its elite universities. But in 1992, only 12 percent of 18-year-olds went on to a three- or four-year university, according to a paper by Harold W. Stevenson, a professor of education at Michigan State University, and his colleagues.

"The more people are familiar with what other countries are doing, as well as the historical and cultural context in which education in a particular country goes on, the more reasonably we can say our standards are not only informed by the best practices but also speak to our own goals and our own society,'' said Senta Raizen, the executive director of the National Center for Improving Science Education.

"That's really the point,'' she added. "We would like to have an education system that is as good as any country's, given our goals.''

Standards-setting groups should be explicit about the school types and grade levels in a country used for comparisons, according to the report for the national goals panel. They should also try to specify what fraction of the age group is covered by the particular standards.

Many countries, such as Germany, do not have one set of standards but several, for students in different tracks and institutions.

The New Standards Project tried to identify the exam that in effect would cover 80 percent to 90 percent of a nation's students, since they would have to meet the standard embodied in the exam or a higher one.

To do such work, warned Ms. Resnick, "you must have colleagues in other countries who want to do this as much as you do.''

The Taiwanese government agreed to pilot Maryland's test because it is interested in developing performance assessments.

Pieces of a Puzzle

Yet another problem is actually gathering the information. Typically, no one document reveals a country's standards. Instead, there may be national or regional curriculum guides, legislative or ministerial directives related to content, the reports of school inspectors, entrance or exit exams, textbooks, and actual classroom practice.

France has no one national exam given to all students. Instead, 27 regional academies compose their own versions.

It is even harder, Ms. Resnick said, to find out what other countries consider good-enough performance. In many European countries, such decisions are vested in teachers, without any formal scoring guides. And each student's work is considered private.

Eventually, Ms. Resnick argued, collections of actual samples of student work from different countries should form the cornerstone of genuine world-class standards.

Moreover, standards only represent the "intended curriculum,'' Ms. Raizen pointed out.

"The implemented curriculum is very, very hard to get at,'' she said. It includes such variables as the organization of the school day, the teachers' roles and responsibilities, and the extent to which teachers actually use textbooks or abide by curriculum guidelines.

Despite such caveats, experts say there is much to be gained by benchmarking U.S. standards to those of other countries.

"I can say now, having looked at their own systems in their own terms, we're behind at least some countries in mathematics,'' Ms. Resnick said.

"We can leapfrog, but we can't do it by copying,'' she added. "You try to understand what they do and make judgments about whether what they're trying to do makes sense for us.''

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