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17-State Project Hammers Out Own Standards

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Proposed national standards in subjects ranging from the arts to U.S. history describe many things students should know and be able to do. But the voluminous documents are relatively silent on how students would show that they have met a standard.

In the next six months, the New Standards Project will turn to the question of how to judge what students know and are able to do as it develops performance standards in English/language arts, mathematics, science, and "applied learning."

The National Center on Education and the Economy, a private, nonprofit research and policy group in Rochester, N.Y., and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh started the project in 1991. The two groups are working with 17 states and six school districts to develop high academic standards and a national examination system to match.

Student Work Is Key

The project is forging ahead with its efforts even as the movement to set national academic standards is facing increasing criticism and decreasing political support. (See Education Week, 01/11/95.)

Ann Borthwick, the New Standards Project's director of applied learning, who is coordinating the project's work on performance standards, described them as the bridge between the emerging national content standards and something that could be used to drive an assessment system.

"The fundamental question that a performance standard asks, which a content standard need not, is how good is good enough?" Ms. Borthwick said. "What does a kid need to have done and shown to say he or she has met the standards for this level?"

In June, officials of the New Standards Project hope to present their governing board with draft performance standards in the four subjects at three levels: elementary, middle, and high school.

Each standard will include examples of student work that have been annotated and scored to show how and why they have met the standard.

"We're actually arguing that the student work is part of the standard," Ms. Borthwick said. "We're trying to argue that until you have student work, you haven't got a standard."

"It's very hard to bake a cake to standard," she said, "if you haven't seen and tasted what a cake was meant to be."

The student work will be culled from the various performance tasks and portfolios that students are now completing as part of the project.

Over time, the developers plan to produce numerous examples of student work, done by students in diverse settings, to anchor each standard.

They also plan to include examples that do not meet the standards, with recommendations on what would bring the work up to par.

"We've got to show kids that work that is good enough doesn't always start out that way," Ms. Borthwick said.

Applied learning, in particular, deals with skills and knowledge that span many subjects, such as the ability to work in teams; solve problems; use technology; and collect, analyze, and organize information.

Although the New Standards Project is developing separate standards for applied learning, said Ms. Borthwick, the idea is not to teach or assess it as a stand-alone subject.

Rather, the examples would emphasize how one piece of student work could provide evidence that a student has achieved multiple standards, including those in applied learning.

"Applied learning," said Ms. Borthwick, "is part of everything else that students do."

Gradual Process

To draft the performance standards, the project is reviewing the national standards documents, as they emerge from federally and privately financed panels in specific subject areas, and the standards that are being drawn up in its partner states and school districts.

It is also consulting with a range of audiences, including national professional associations, its site partners, advisory committees for each subject that include experts in the field and community members, and panels of teacher reviewers.

"The proposed national standards are useful starting points, but we don't think they are--in any case--the endpoint," said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

If the governing board endorses the initial draft standards in June, they will go through another round of review with a much broader audience--including the public--before coming back to the board in June of next year.

"The material is in a very early stage," Ms. Borthwick explained. "We're showing it to people and asking them what they think, and going back and redoing it. I expect it to go through many, many drafts before we get to the end of it."

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