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Push Ahead With Standards, Alternative Assessments, Panel Urges

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A group of eminent scholars is urging educators to just do it: Get on with trying out rigorous standards and alternative approaches to assessment in the nation's classrooms.

Despite the imperfection of available standards documents and measurement instruments, "this panel advises educators to 'get started,"' writes the National Academy of Education's panel on standards-based education reform.

In a report to be released this month, the panel concludes: "To wait until fully developed standards and assessment instruments are available in all knowledge domains, and capacity to implement them exists in all areas of the country, as opposed to acting on what we do know, would cheat many American students out of beneficial changes standards-based reforms could foster in their schools and classrooms."

But the scholars recommend that states and districts proceed with caution so that disadvantaged students are not further handicapped and so that teachers and schools are not penalized for failing to make the grade due to factors beyond their control.

The academy consists of 135 education scholars. It originally was commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to address the challenges the new National Education Standards and Improvement Council likely would face in its mission to certify national content and performance standards and state assessments. But the academy modified its purpose when it became evident that the Republican-controlled Congress was likely to scrap the council, whose members have not been named.

Building on Research

The N.A.E. panel does not wholeheartedly endorse the concept of standards-based education. Rather, its report aims to advise educators and policymakers about the best way to implement such reforms if that is the route they choose.

In addition to making a few overall suggestions, the panel, led by Milbrey W. McLaughlin of Stanford University and Lorrie A. Shepard of the University of Colorado at Boulder, offers separate recommendations for the implementation of content standards, performance standards, "opportunity to learn standards," and assessments.

First, the report encourages educators to build their strategies on existing research about student learning and education practices. That research is both extensive and gap-filled.

"What is known is fragmentary," the report says. "But integrating these fragments into a coherent system remains to be done. The challenge for reformers is to implement, on a broad scale and for all students, what has proven effective in individual cases."

While the current body of knowledge is being put into practice, the panel envisions that researchers and educators will continue to improve the standards and assessments, and also look to classrooms as laboratories to identify what works and what does not.

And although the report strongly endorses including all stakeholders in the creation of standards, it recognizes the need for education professionals to take the lead because of their expertise.

Safeguarding Equity

The panel emphasizes equity and opportunity-to-learn standards--a stance that is likely to touch the nerves of some members of Congress, governors, and state lawmakers, who have denounced federal involvement in promoting opportunity-to-learn standards as an encroachment on state and local authority. Such standards are intended to make sure that all students have the means to reach high academic goals.

"Equity receives special attention in this report," the panel says, "because if standards-based reform falls short of its promises, the potential for harm to traditionally disadvantaged groups is great."

Among its specific recommendations, the group suggests that the U.S. Education Department, state agencies, and various other groups support efforts to investigate issues and approaches to insuring opportunity-to-learn.

In spite of misgivings about the national education-standards council, which Congress created last year, the report recommends that some sort of national--but not necessarily federal--board be created to foster discussion and offer information about standards.

The N.A.E. recommendation parallels proposals that were to be taken up last weekend by the National Education Goals Panel, which was meeting in Burlington, Vt.

A Yellow Light

Govs. Roy Romer of Colorado and John Engler of Michigan have proposed that the panel create two resource groups--one that would draft a description of "world class" academic standards and a second that would tackle assessment.

In addition to helping states and districts, the panels might produce documents to help the public better understand standards-based reform, said John Barth, the goals panel's senior education associate who oversees standards and assessments.

The two Governors also have recommended that a voluntary, non-binding "peer review" process be established to offer feedback to states and districts as they develop standards and assessments.

The N.A.E. panel also recommends moving ahead with new forms of assessment that are aligned with course content and standards. But it suggests postponing high-stakes testing until the measurement instruments are proved to be valid and fair and all students have the opportunity to learn.

The panel also opposes limiting content standards to a single set for each subject area.

The report offers "a good cautionary approach," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center for National Education Policy. "It is signaling a yellow light and saying as you proceed, you have to be very careful about these things."

At the same time, said Mr. Jennings, the report says, "Let's just go and do something and get off the dime. You can study these things to death."

But Mr. Jennings, the former general counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee, said the subtleties may be lost on Congress. "It's hard to get the attention of members of Congress unless you have a bold statement, such as 'Standards-based reform is no good,' or 'Standards-based reform is wonderful."'

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