Achieve Declares Itself Ready To Aid States With Reforms
More than two years after governors and business leaders endorsed the idea of reforming schools through competitive academic standards, the group they created to carry on their agenda says it is ready to show states whether they are meeting that challenge.
Achieve Inc. announced last week that it can perform thorough and objective analyses of every piece of a state's education system, from its standards and curriculum to its assessments and textbooks. The Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization will compare a state's package with those of other states and other countries.
"We want to provide helpful feedback to improve what states are doing," said Matt Gandal, the director of standards and assessment in Achieve's Washington office. "We're asking very serious questions about what the tests are measuring and whether they are measuring what's on paper" in standards.
The nation's governors and a group of corporate executives reinvigorated the standards- and assessment-based school reform movement at a two-day summit in March 1996 when they called on all states to define what students should know and to find tests to measure that learning.
By now, 39 states have adopted standards in English, mathematics, science, and history/social studies. At the time of the summit, only 14 states had such standards, Achieve officials say.
Likewise, states are aggressively adopting assessments. Forty-seven are on track to have tests in at least reading and math, and 28 intend to have tests in science and social studies as well.
Despite the sheer number of such efforts, critics have called many states' standards weak. These evaluators have awarded often-contradictory grades to the standards, however. Moreover, experts haven't studied state assessments to see if they test what a state says its standards are.2
Relying on Consultants
With a retinue of consultants, Achieve hopes to solve such evaluation problems by comparing a state's standards with those of other states and countries while avoiding the subjective reviews the group says have marred other comparisons, its leaders said at a briefing here last week.
Achieve, which is governed by leading participants in the 1996 summit, also said it is ready to analyze how well textbooks and standardized tests match up with a state's standards.
The organization will charge states anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 for such evaluations, depending on the depth of services.
Achieve is operating on a $1.5 million budget, raised almost exclusively from corporations and foundations. It has a staff of eight split between its Washington and Cambridge offices and advisers throughout the country.
During the past year, Achieve has reviewed Michigan's and North Carolina's testing programs to see how well they assess what is in their standards. In Michigan, the group's consultants found the assessment was more difficult than the standards. In North Carolina, they found the opposite.
For a separate study, Achieve has hired William H. Schmidt, the research coordinator from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, to compare standards and tests in 20 states with those of other countries.
"It is ambitious, but they are carving out a niche ... to get some of these things done," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington group tracking standards-based reform. Achieve contracted with Mr. Cross' group and the Learning Research and Development Center to analyze Michigan's and North Carolina's standards and assessments. "It's the kind of thing that helps a governor answer the question: 'Are my standards very good?'" he said.
Achieve also says it can help states compare student achievement across their boundaries.
The organization is actively looking for methods to create a block of test questions measuring common elements in state standards that could be inserted into individual states' tests. The process, called embedding, may also be an answer to critics who contend that national tests of the kind proposed by President Clinton would interfere with states' control over their curricula.
"It would be designed to focus on a particular area of the curriculum that is considered to be particularly important," Mr. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing and a senior associate for Achieve, said of the process.
One set of questions, he said, could test 8th graders' knowledge of geometry and algebra.
Embedding by 2000?
If Achieve solves the technical problems presented by embedding, it may be ready to offer a series of questions by 2000, according to Robert B. Schwartz, the group's president.
The data would go beyond what's available from the National Assessment of Educational Progress because it could pinpoint achievement in specific schools and may even yield individual student results, he added.
NAEP, the federal sampling of student achievement in core subjects, provides state-by-state comparisons but not results for individual schools or students.
Vol. 18, Issue 9, Page 6