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An 'A' or a 'D': State Rankings Differ Widely

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The way the American Federation of Teachers figures it, Michigan earns a C for the quality of its math and English standards. By the Council for Basic Education's reckoning, the grade rises to a B-plus. But on the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's report car d, Michigan plummets to an F.

No wonder educators there are confused.

"You wonder where you stand," said Tim Kelly, the education policy coordinator for Gov. John Engler. "I mean, one place gives you an A, another gives you an F. I'd have to believe the truth is somewhere in the middle."

Michigan is hardly alone. Almost every state has adopted standards for what students should know and be able to do as a cornerstone of its school reform efforts. And most are looking for guidance on how to make those standards better.

But, so far, quality appears to lie in the eye of the beholder.

An Education Week analysis of the three major reviews of state standards found large disparities in the way those standards are rated. More than half the states received marks in mathematics that varied by at least two letter grades across the thre e reports. In English/language arts, 19 states had such differences.

"I guess the various messages kind of confirm what many policymakers have suspected," said Tom Houlihan, the former education adviser to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina. "No one really seems to know where we all stand on standards."

Different Criteria

Congress originally had hoped to bring some coherence to the standards-setting process. In 1994, it created a 19-member panel, known as the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, or nesic, to help review the quality of states' academic stan dards against a common set of benchmarks. But the panel was abolished before its members were even named, after opponents contended that it would lead to an unwarranted federal intrusion into education. ("House Committee P asses Bill To Eliminate Standards Council," May 17, 1995.)

In the absence of a national body that could evaluate the quality of state standards, the three private, Washington-based nonprofit groups stepped into the fray. Their grades differ, in part, because each group has a different conception of what good stan dards are. Each uses different criteria to judge them, and they also disagree about what constitutes good reading or math teaching.

The AFT, for example, focuses on whether state standards are clear and specific enough to allow teachers and others to come up with a curriculum based on them.

The Council for Basic Education measured the "rigor" of state standards by comparing the state documents against frameworks it had developed with the help of two advisory panels. Its ratings first appeared in January in "Quality C ounts '98," an annual report card on education in the 50 states published by Education Week.

The Fordham Foundation enlisted individual scholars to review standards for the various disciplines. For each subject, the scholars devised a detailed set of criteria in consultation with a panel of experts.

The Fordham criteria most clearly favor a traditional view of the curricula, and its ratings reflect that. For example, Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at Harvard University's graduate school of education, who reviewed the English/language arts stand ards for Fordham, gave states negative points for "anti-literary or anti-academic requirements," such as requiring that students relate what they read to their everyday lives. In general, Fordham was the harshest judge and CBE the most lenient, with the t eachers' union in the middle.

"Each of the reports evaluates something different, and I think that's all useful information to states," said Ruth Wattenberg, the director of educational issues for the AFT. She argued that states should look at what the criteria are, understand how the judgments were made, and revise their standards accordingly.

But Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve, a group formed by the nation's governors and top business leaders to help raise academic standards, said that may be asking too much. "It would take a lot of work," he said, "for so mebody in a state to try to figure out the different criteria at work here."

Picking and Choosing

Indeed, many people at the state level are feeling pinched between the various evaluations. "It certainly creates confusion," said John Barth, the director of education policy studies for the National Governors' Association.

A recent article in The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., illustrates the frustrations at the state level: "How does Washington stack up against other states in its efforts to raise academic standards?" the article began. "Depends on whom you ask."

Kentucky's education commissioner, Wilmer S. Cody, shot off a memo recently to the legislature, defending its standards and criticizing the work of the Fordham Foundation, which gave the state low marks. As proof that the Kentucky standards are adequate, he cited the higher ratings published by Education Week.

And in New Jersey, the dueling ratings even found their way into last year's gubernatorial race. State Sen. James E. McGreevey, the Democratic contender, cited the AFT and Fordham reports as proof that New Jersey's standards were the "worst in the nation. " Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman countered that in the 1997 Quality Counts, New Jersey's standards and assessments ranked among the top five in the nation. (The 1997 report gave states high marks simply for adopting standards in the core su bjects. The final grade was also based on an analysis of each state's assessment and accountability provisions.)

State officials particularly dislike the practice of applying a single grade to their standards. "The idea of trying to reduce all these complexities to a numerical rating is, to me, not useful," said Leo Klagholz, New Jersey's commissioner of education. "It's too complicated."

'Turn People Off'

Some fear the conflicting ratings will enable policymakers to ignore substantive criticism by pointing to whichever report gives their state the best review. Others worry that the confusion could undermine standards-based reform.

"It's conceivable that it could really turn people off to the whole idea," said Mr. Gandal of Achieve, who wrote both the 1996 and 1997 AFT reviews before moving to his current position. "They could throw up their hands and say, 'If people in education ca n't even agree on what makes a good set of standards, how can we move forward here?'"

By August, the National Education Goals Panel hopes to release a paper that would illuminate some of the similarities and differences between the various rating systems. The federally created panel--composed of governors, congressional leaders, and Clinto n administration officials--originally was to work with NESIC to help review state standards.

"It seemed within our mandate and very timely," Emily Wurtz, a senior education associate with the panel, said about the project. "We want to assist states so that people don't feel these ratings are arbitrary."

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Foundation, agreed that it would be helpful to clarify the similarities and differences between the rating systems. "We're game to participate," he said, "as long as it's intellectually respectable and not just an effort to blur or paper over real differences that might exist."

But he cautioned that, particularly when it comes to the substance of the disciplines, any hope of consensus may be premature.

That may be especially true in mathematics. The Council for Basic Education based its benchmarks for judging state standards in part on the voluntary national standards written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. But the authors of the For dham appraisal took issue with many of the NCTM standards, such as their support for the early use of calculators and their de-emphasis on memorization and mastery of basic arithmetic procedures.

Like Movie Reviews

Both Michigan and North Carolina, meanwhile, are involved in a pilot project with Achieve that is helping them ground their standards and assessments against other systems both here and abroad.

"This confusion out there about standards is the reason why Achieve is so necessary from the governors' point of view," said Mr. Houlihan, who is now the president of the North Carolina Partnership for Excellence, a statewide school and business collabora tion. The Achieve pilot project is being conducted by the CBE and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

"We hope to provide, once and for all, an honest evaluation and true appraisal of our standards," Mr. Kelly of Michigan said.

But Mr. Finn cautioned that there may be no single answer to what makes a good standard. He likened the current ratings to restaurant and movie reviews. "Often, if you're deciding to go to a restaurant or see a movie or buy a book, you read several review s and then weigh the evidence," he said. "If the points of view give you reason to believe that the product isn't very good or is seriously troubled, then you might want to think twice about it."

Florida had planned to conduct a review of its standards this spring. But the conflicting ratings have given the state a renewed sense of urgency, said Frank T. Brogan, the commissioner of education. "The one thing this should do for all of us is keep us on our toes," he said. "If everyone comes along and says your standards are acceptable, and no one ever challenges them, there's a likelihood that you'll become lazy."

Web Only

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read a summary of American Federation of Teachers report "Making Standards Matter 1999." Or read the report in its entirety from the AFT Web site (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader).
  • The Education Excellence Network, a joint venture of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Hudson Institute, has evaluated state standards in several discplines, most recently in mathematics and science. All of the Fordham reports require Adobe's Acrobat reader.
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