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'Fuzzy' Talk on Standards Imperils Reforms, Report Says

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A schizophrenic attitude toward standards could undercut efforts to improve the schools, a report from the Educational Excellence Network warns.

"[W]e find that education policymakers at all levels have gotten fuzzy and ambivalent about high academic standards," Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch, the directors of the network, write in the report released last week.

The document was signed by the network's new education-policy committee, a group of 50 prominent individuals that includes two former U.S. Secretaries of Education, Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett Jr.

The report contends the Clinton Administration "talks out of both sides of its mouth" when it comes to education standards.

It criticized the Administration's recently passed Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which codified eight national education goals, calling the measure's "shortcomings ... profound," particularly its lack of "any meaningful testing system."

The act encourages, but does not require, states to develop a system of standards and assessments.

The report also berates the U.S. Education Department for investigating whether Ohio violated the civil rights of high school students by requiring an exit test to receive a diploma. A disproportionate number of minority students have failed the exam. (See Education Week, April 6, 1994.)

"That's true schizophrenia with respect to standards," Mr. Finn charged. "We should never accept the notion that standards and expectations should be lower for some groups than for others, or that different results on a test mean the test should be faulted."

C+ for Effort

The report also decries the backlash against "outcomes-based education," a reform strategy that holds schools accountable for student performance instead of educational inputs.

Many state outcomes are "inappropriate, offensive, and even sacrilegious to many Americans," the report argues.

But, it adds, "Unfortunately, an awfully important baby could go down the drain with the O.B.E. bath water, and the country could find itself returning to an era when 'inputs,' services, and intentions are the main gauge of educational quality and performance."

Other sections of the report praise the surge in charter-school legislation, continued efforts to foster school choice, and the growing number of experiments to contract with private providers for educational services.

But, in general, the document gives the past year in education only a C+: "a mark that traditionally suggests tolerable effort ... but lackluster results."

'A Little Polemical'

Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch, an education historian, founded the network in 1981 to foster the exchange of educational ideas. In addition to promoting standards, testing, and accountability, it favors greater choice and diversity among schools. In 1992, it became part of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute.

The network's new policy arm will "do battle in the war of education ideas," Mr. Finn, the John M. Olin fellow at Hudson, said. He asserted that its principles are under seige from vested interests and those who support the status quo.

Three members of the committee declined to endorse the report: Leslye Arsht, the president of the Goals 2000 Coalition; Bill Honig, the former state superintendent of public instruction in California; and Donald P. Stewart, the president of the College Board. Mr. Honig said he disagreed with its strong advocacy of school vouchers.

"There's a tilt to that outfit," he said. "Some of the things they say I really believe in--standards-- but they get a little polemical."

Copies of the report, "Looking Back, Thinking Ahead: American School Reform 1993-95," are available from the Educational Excellence Network, Hudson Institute, P.O. Box 26-919, Indianapolis, Ind. 46226; (800) HUDSON-0.

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