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14-State Reform Project Releases Draft Standards

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By the time students complete 4th grade, they will have mastered writing fiction that includes complex characters, an organizing structure, a plot, and conflict.

By the time they leave 8th grade, they should be able to write persuasive essays that support their viewpoints with detailed documentation and anticipate and address readers' concerns and counterarguments.

And by the end of 10th grade, students will be expected not only to critique public-policy documents but to produce them as well.

These are a few of the tasks laid out in a three-volume set of draft academic-performance standards that will be distributed in the coming weeks for review and comment. The draft standards and the samples of student work that accompany them mark another milestone for the New Standards project, a group of researchers and policy specialists working to define and identify just how well students meet high academic standards and to create a matching national examination system.

About 1,500 copies of the draft documents will go out to educators, scholars, policymakers, parents, the business community, and other interested parties to review over the next several weeks. Project leaders plan to submit revised documents to the New Standards governing board for approval at its meeting in June.

By that time, the project also will have in hand a second year of assessment data that are both broader and deeper than what was accumulated last year.

How Good Is Good?

The University of Pittsburgh and the National Center on Education and the Economy, a private, nonprofit research and policy group based in Rochester, N.Y., started New Standards in 1991. They brought on board both state and school district partners. Six districts and 14 states now take part in the project.

New Standards leaders set out to produce performance standards and assessments for English-language arts, mathematics, science, and applied learning that students would have to meet by the end of the 4th, 8th, and 10th grades. Though not a discipline in itself, applied learning asks students to perform tasks for which they will need to achieve understanding of other subject matter.

Numerous voluntary national content standards have been rolled out over the past 19 months that describe what students should know and be able to do in individual academic disciplines. (See Education Week, April 12, 1995.)

The New Standards project's newly unveiled performance standards, however, were designed to specify how students must demonstrate their knowledge and skills and at what level. In standards-setting parlance, it is known as "how good is good enough."

Each oversized volume is by grade level--elementary, middle, and high school--and contains the performance standards for the three disciplines, plus applied learning. In addition, student work samples illustrate specific performance tasks. The samples include commentary explaining how the student satisfied or did not satisfy the standard.

Notes in the margins throughout the volumes refer readers to international benchmarks for academic achievement and other standards documents.

Similar Foundations

Even though content and performance standards have different jobs to do, people who are familiar with national content standards will find these recognizable. Much of the material embedded in the standards created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics can be found in the New Standards math yardsticks.

Because the developers of content standards for English-language arts and for science have not yet completed their work, comparisons are more difficult to make. (Final English-language-arts standards are due out next March; science standards are to be released next month.) But New Standards project leaders say they have been working with the content-standards developers to ensure that they are building on similar foundations.

"We've made a concerted effort to make sure that we're not creating another set of standards," said Elizabeth K. Stage, the co-director of science standards for New Standards.

But the order of presentation diverges.

In math, for example, NCTM standards start out with problem-solving, communication, and reasoning.

New Standards, however, begins with more basic concepts: "The student adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides whole numbers, with and without calculators."

"It's a matter of reordering the heading instead of changing the substance," Ms. Stage said.

Support for 'Basics'

The strategy goes hand in hand with the results of focus groups that met over the summer. The groups, which included parents, self-described conservative and liberal voters, and adults from a variety of ethnic groups, among others, were most accepting of standards that emphasized the "basics."

The acquisition--and mastery--of basic skills can also be readily found in the English-language-arts standards. One standard requires students to use "appropriate conventions of the English language"--spelling, sentence construction, paragraph structure, punctuation, grammar, and usage.

The standards, however, also recognize reading and writing as processes and emphasize meaning in reading and writing.

The standards require students to read at least 25 books a year and include sample reading lists that project leaders stress are open for substitutions.

The sample lists do not shy away from some of the works that have been controversial in some communities. At the middle school level there are Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl and "Inherit the Wind," a play about the "Scopes monkey trial," which focused on the teaching of evolution. On the list for high school students are William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Richard Wright's Black Boy.

Sally Hampton, the director of the English-language-arts standards, said every book on the sample lists is from other widely accepted reading lists. In addition, she said, it was necessary to cite specific titles to show what satisfied the guidelines and what didn't.

"It tries to address the issue of quality," said Ms. Hampton, who heads a special standards project for the Fort Worth, Texas, school district. "We expect each member to construct its own list but to keep the quality high."

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