Report for Goals Panel Calls for Consensus on Standards
Although states' academic standards will vary with differing educational goals and needs, educators and national groups should seek consensus on the "essential features" of good standards and establish a common terminology, a report commissioned by the National Education Goals Panel recommends.
But such a consensus may be hard to reach because of fundamental disagreements among experts, it suggests.
The report released last month analyzes three major reviews of state standards in mathematics and English/language arts conducted over the past year. States looking for guidance from those reports--by the American Federation of Teachers, the Council for Basic Education, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation--may be confused by the vastly different ratings of the quality of their standards, according to "Review of State Content Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics: A Summary and Review of Their Methods and Findings and Implications for Future Standards Development."
An Education Week analysis found, for example, that more than half the states received marks in math that varied by at least two letter grades across the three reports. In English/language arts, 19 states had such differences. ("An 'A' or a 'D': State Rankings Differ Widely," April 15, 1998.)
The reports "do create some confusion, and it's most difficult for the individual states when they're faced with [negative] headlines and they have to try to explain them," said Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve, a group formed by the nation's governors and top business leaders to assist states in raising academic standards.
"But ignoring them is the wrong way to go here. These reports are attempting to point out very serious issues about the quality of the academic standards states are setting," added Mr. Gandal, the author of the first two aft reports on state standards.
The disparities are due partly to the different criteria used by the groups in evaluating the standards, according to the examination written for the goals panel. The teachers' union focused on clarity and specificity. The CBE, a Washington-based group that promotes high academic standards, judged them on their rigor--that is, whether a standard is essential and challenging.
The CBE's ratings, which were based on how the states' documents compared against a framework it had drafted with the help of two advisory panels, first appeared in January in Quality Counts '98, an annual report card on education in the 50 states published by Education Week.
The Fordham Foundation reports--which gave the harshest and most detailed evaluations, according to the goals panel's study--rated the standards against an extensive list of criteria that favored a traditional view of curricula. The foundation, also based in Washington, is headed by Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan.
The Best Fit
Although state academic-content standards are a crucial part of reform efforts in most states, "the extensive attention to content standards and their widespread acceptance belies the significant lack of consensus on how state standards should be organized, how specific they should be, and how they are supposed to transform instruction," Douglas A. Archbald, an associate professor of education at the University of Delaware in Newark, concludes in the new study. Mr. Archbald wrote the report for the federally created goals panel, which does not necessarily endorse his opinions.
Standards committees, therefore, should review each group's analysis and determine which criteria and definition of quality can be best adapted to their own states, Mr. Archbald advises.
On this, the authors of the three reviews concur. "They need to look at what the underlying premises of the raters are and decide philosophically where they are best aligned," said CBE President Christopher T. Cross, who later held the same post as Mr. Finn in the U.S. Department of Education under President Bush.
"Reasonable people can differ on what is the optimal structure and content of standards,'' Mr. Archbald said last week. This is not an exact science." While he does not call for national standards, he believes that consensus on certain issues is possible.
Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 8