Team Takes Standards-Review Effort on the Road
Before the Oregon state school board adopted academic standards for the state's students last week, thousands of Oregonians had reviewed sundry drafts of the documents.
But the Oregon standards had another imprint no other state's has.
A team of standards experts from across the country visited the state to critique the unfinished documents, showing education officials how Oregon stacked up against others' efforts and giving the state the opportunity to improve the final product.
The National Standards Review Team accomplished, at least in large part, what the nation's governors and many business leaders called for at an education summit last March: technical assistance that could size up a state's standards in comparison with others in this country and abroad.
"We didn't have the luxury to wait for 'the entity' to be created," said Joyce Holmes Benjamin, Oregon's associate superintendent for federal relations, referring to the group the National Governors' Association intends to assemble. "What we did was come up with something that would be a model."
Oregon began work on its standards-based reform in 1991. Along the way, Norma Paulus, the state superintendent of public instruction, said she told everyone that the state's standards would be as challenging as any in the nation. Last spring, she said, "I started worrying about it and thought, 'How do I know that?'"
Her staff searched for experts and settled on the State Education Improvement Partnership, a collaboration of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the NGA.
Working with officials in Oregon, the partnership designed a process for evaluating the proposed standards and convened 14 educators and policy analysts to grade the state's work.
From Ms. Paulus' call to board approval, the process of review, discussion, and clarifying the standards for the entire citizenry took only six months.
Since the group offered its suggestions in July, the state education department incorporated most of the recommendations into the final version it presented to the state board last week.
The history standards, which the team found too vague, have been rewritten, for example.
The final document also explains how all the various elements in the standards package fit together, an element the review team found lacking.
"We did not ask these people to come in and do a whitewash," Ms. Benjamin said.
Team members felt their advice had already been taken before they left the state, said Edward D. Roeber, the CCSSO's director of student assessment, who headed the review.
But Mr. Roeber and others are not sure the process would work as smoothly in every state.
Timing, for instance, was crucial. The team had a chance to review a draft that was far enough along but was not the finished product. "These were really their standards, but they hadn't been blessed by the state board and set in concrete," Mr. Roeber said.
Also in Oregon's favor was that all of its governance groups were of one mind on the importance of standards-based reform. "If it were a case where someone wanted us to do a hatchet job on it, I don't know if we would do [the review]," he said.
Based on their experience in Oregon, partnership members said they would make a few changes, such as spending more than three days in the state and formalizing the process somewhat. If feasible, they might also review an earlier draft as well as a later one.
And they would probably have to charge more for the service. Oregon and the partnership split the cost, which came in at just under $15,000. Team members donated their services. With additional states, "I'm not sure we're going to get people to agree to do this without an honorarium," said Patricia Mitchell, a senior project associate for the partnership.
Participants in the Oregon project believe the outside group can play a role in the mission of the standards group the governors envision--the as-yet-unformed group still called "the entity."
So far, the group has some funding but organizers are asking foundations and business leaders for more. Staffing, particularly the background of an executive director who would have to satisfy politicians, educators, and business leaders, is another thorny issue they need to address.
"I think the entity would like that this service has been created," Ms. Mitchell said. "They want it to be more an organizer and leader and advocate rather than a nitty-gritty doer."
The State Education Improvement Partnership's review team is not the only service available to help states draft and hone their academic standards. The Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based group that advocates rigorous standards, is working with Colorado, Delaware, and Massachusetts to identify the comparability in their standards. Once that task is completed, the three states hope to pool their resources to build an assessment system.
Because of these and other services, some observers question if the governors' and business leaders' entity is really necessary.
"There's obviously a concern that the entity could end up being a redundancy," said one veteran of the standards movement.
Seven education groups, including the chiefs, the NCSL, and the CBE, last month wrote to the governors and executives, asking them to devise separate strategies for each of the five functions the entity is expected to fulfill.
An attachment to the letter breaks down by function--leadership, clearinghouse, benchmarking, technical assistance, and public reporting--the various organizations that already perform some of the activities.
"They did in Oregon what we're trying to do on a much broader basis," said Patricia F. Sullivan, the NGA's director of education legislation, who has been guiding the creation of the entity.
One of the entity's first orders of business, she said, will be to take inventory of the services already available, to avoid duplication.
"We don't see any one organization taking over all the functions," said Ms. Sullivan. "We have to put together a package the governors are comfortable with."