Published Online: April 9, 1997


Stumping for Standards

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In a society as mobile and concerned with equity as ours, location should not determine the type or the rigor of the reading or math students learn.

Two recent surveys by the nonpartisan foundation Public Agenda found that a vast majority of the general public, business leaders, and students support academic standards, descriptions of what all students should know and be able to do at specified grade levels. President Clinton has tapped into this general support for standards by proposing the adoption of voluntary national standards and reading and math tests. Not surprisingly, the president's proposal has met with wide approval. The American Association of School Administrators found that a majority of superintendents, administrators, and school board members support the proposal, and the Business Roundtable's education task force--chaired by the Lockheed Martin Corp.'s CEO, Norman R. Augustine--has declared its support as well.

Despite the strong consensus for standards, many people are confused about President Clinton's proposal to adopt the standards and tests. What are the standards? What did the president mean when he said that the standards would be "national, not federal"? Why are they voluntary? The president has suggested very straightforward standards: All students should read at grade level by the 4th grade and master basic mathematics and algebra by the 8th grade. The standards would be defined by national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. The standards would be national and not federal because they would be developed by experts in the field, not federal bureaucrats. Moreover, although every state and district would be encouraged to use the tests to assess all students, they would not be required to do so. Furthermore, the federal government would merely report the scores; states, districts, and schools would be free to use the information as they wished. Finally, President Clinton encourages states and districts to continue to create their own specific standards in reading, math, and other subjects.

Some people have also expressed concerns about the president's proposal. One concern is that national standards may hurt low-performing students, especially those in high-poverty schools. In fact, these students suffer the most in the absence of standards. Students in high-poverty schools often receive high grades despite low skills. A 1994 U.S. Department of Education study concluded that students in high-poverty schools who receive mostly A's in English read only as well as C and D students in affluent schools. Similarly, students receiving mostly A's in mathematics in high-poverty schools perform in math about the same as D students in affluent schools.

Shouldn't students in poor schools be pushed to improve their skills so that they will succeed in college or a demanding career? Shouldn't their schools be held accountable for teaching those skills? Public Agenda found that students think so: Three out of four said students should be promoted only when they have learned everything they are supposed to have learned, and almost nine out of 10 said the standards should be as high for inner-city schools as for those in middle-class and affluent suburbs. ("Survey Reveals Teens Yearn for High Standards," Feb. 12, 1997.)

Another concern voiced by critics is that the national tests represent federal government intrusion into education. These critics fear the thought of federal bureaucrats developing tests that set standards for all students. On the contrary, the proposed tests would be based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a highly regarded exam that has been created through consensus by teachers and subject specialists and used by states for 27 years. While NAEP would set expectations for student learning and measure student achievement, it would not dictate how schools should teach.

Yet another concern is that the proposed budget for the tests--$90 million over the next five years--could be better spent helping students meet existing standards. Indeed, according to Education Week, all states except Iowa and Wyoming and many districts (including the District of Columbia) have either adopted or are in the process of adopting academic standards, and most states already test their students in math and reading. (See Quality Counts, Education Week special supplement, Jan. 22, 1997.) These tests, however, have two main problems. First, a vast majority of the states with assessments have set very low expectations for their students.

Parents, armed with data on student achievement in comparable schools across the country, will be empowered to hold schools accountable.

Second, state assessments prevent comparisons of students and schools in one state with those in another. State assessments also allow for vastly different standards in subjects like math and reading that should be comparable in every state. The Southern Regional Education Board found that while many states report that 70 percent of their students meet their own standards for student achievement on the state tests in mathematics and reading, only about 30 percent of the students in these states are actually proficient in these subjects.

Shouldn't the math and reading learned by Washington, D.C., students compare in content and rigor with the reading and math learned by students in Virginia, Maryland, and California? In a society as mobile and concerned with equity as ours, location should not determine the type or the rigor of the reading or math students learn. National tests would set the same high expectations for all students and allow for comparisons of students and schools across the country.

A final concern about the national tests comes from those, including Washington Post columnist David Broder, who believe that President Clinton is not going far enough. Mr. Broder notes correctly that the proposed budget is sufficient only to develop the tests and administer them once, in 1999. He also suggests, again correctly, that two tests in two subjects fall far short of a systematic set of standards. Finally, Mr. Broder questions the administration's decision to make the tests voluntary, asking whether "superintendents and principals who think their kids will not measure up [will] volunteer for the embarrassment of testing."

Mr. Broder is absolutely correct: President Clinton's proposal is modest, almost to a fault. The president recognizes (as does Mr. Broder) the political realities that require starting small, focusing on uncontroversial subjects, and avoiding a new federal mandate. We can hope that the president will be able to encourage all states to participate in the test and to build enough momentum that tests will continue after 1999. But Mr. Clinton should not attempt to include other subjects in the national testing program at this time; there is simply not enough consensus over what all students should learn in subjects such as science and history, and such a debate would detract from the wide consensus that exists in reading and math.

Moreover, testing 4th grade students in reading and 8th grade students in math makes sound academic sense. Research shows that students unable to read well by the end of the 3rd grade are more likely to become dropouts, struggle in later grades, and have fewer good job options. Developing math proficiency in junior high school enables students to succeed in rigorous math and science courses in high school, which have been shown to increase scores on college-entrance exams and prepare students for the intellectual challenges of college and careers. Programs such as the College Board's Equity 2000 are showing that all students can succeed in challenging math courses that expand both students' minds and their options.

Testing students in these "gatekeeper" subjects during key points in their educations will provide invaluable information to students, parents, and educators. Students will be pushed to learn essential information and skills and receive feedback early enough to improve. Parents, armed with data on student achievement in comparable schools across the country, will be empowered to hold schools accountable for providing a high-quality education. Educators will be able to use this same information to identify and then replicate successful schools and programs.

Just as education is the key to our children's future, information about education is the key to improving the quality of schools and increasing student learning.

Christopher T. Cross is the president of the Maryland state board of education and of the Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit organization in Washington that advocates high academic standards in K-12 education. Scott Joftus is a policy analyst at the CBE.

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