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Published in Print: January 17, 2007, as Standards Get Boost On the Hill

Standards Get Boost on the Hill

Bills before Congress aim to raise the bar in states.

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The politically sensitive idea of increasing the rigor of state standards and tests by linking them to standards set at the national level is getting a push from prominent lawmakers as Congress moves to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act as early as this year.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee and a newly announced candidate for president, introduced a bill with Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., last week that would provide incentives for states to adopt voluntary “American education content standards” in mathematics and science, to be developed by the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the new chairman of the committee, introduced a bill Jan. 4 that would encourage states to benchmark their own standards and tests to NAEP, but would stop short of calling for the development of national standards.

About 40 organizations have endorsed the bipartisan Dodd-Ehlers bill, including such Washington-based groups as the National Education Association, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Council of the Great City Schools.

Studies over the past year have found that, in many states, a far higher percentage of students score at the proficient level on state tests than on NAEP. Those findings have led to concern that states’ standards and tests may not be stringent enough, and that pressure to meet achievement targets under the NCLB law may be providing the perverse incentive of encouraging states to lower their standards.

“Core American standards would set high goals for all students, allow for meaningful comparisons across states, and ensure that all of our students are prepared for higher education,” Sen. Dodd said at a Jan. 8 event held here to unveil his bill. Creating incentives for states to adopt such standards voluntarily is the way to go, he stressed, emphasizing “there are no mandates here.”

‘Troubling to Many’

Still, some experts voiced concerns last week about renewed attention to the topic of national standards. Among them were David L. Shreve, the senior committee director for education at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has no official position on either bill.

“The whole idea of national standards is troubling to many at the state level, especially given the difficulties they’ve gone through as NCLB was implemented,” he said. “If you’re going to develop voluntary standards, how do you make sure that’s not opening the door toward national voluntary federal standards, and then that evolves into national mandatory federal standards?”

The Dodd-Ehlers bill—called the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for all Kids, or SPEAK, Act—would authorize grants of up to $4 million each for states that adopted the new math and science standards as the core of their own state content standards.

As a further incentive, the bill would permit the U.S. secretary of education to extend the 2014 deadline for states to get all students to the proficient level on state reading and math tests under the NCLB law by up to four years. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has indicated, however, that she has no interest in shifting the 2014 deadline for all students to reach proficiency.

The sponsors have begun circulating the bill on Capitol Hill in an attempt to gain the backing of additional lawmakers. By late last week, at least three Democrats—Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Reps. Ruben E. Hinojosa of Texas and Daniel Lipinski of Illinois—had signed on.

A Push for National-Level Standards

Congress is considering two new bills that aim to increase the rigor of state standards and tests by linking them to those set at the national level.

The SPEAK Act (SB 224, HR 325), or Dodd-Ehlers bill, would:

Require the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress to create voluntary U.S. education standards in mathematics and science for grades K-12 and ensure they are internationally competitive.
Provide competitive grants to states that adopt the standards. Those states would align their tests in math and science, as well as teacher licensure, preparation, and training requirements, with the new standards.
Permit the U.S. secretary of education to extend the 2014 deadline for states to get all students to the “proficient” level on state reading and math tests under the No Child Left Behind Act by up to four years.
Provide bonus grants for states that fulfill the grant requirements to develop data systems that can track individual student performance over time.
Require NAEP to test science, as well as reading and math, in grades 4, 8, and 12 every two years and require states getting NCLB school improvement funds to participate in such tests for students in grades 4 and 8.

The SUCCESS Act (SB 164), or Kennedy bill, would:

Require that NAEP revise its standards and tests to ensure that they are internationally competitive. At 12th grade, NAEP also would have to assess whether students are prepared for college, the military, and the workforce.
Require the U.S. secretary of education to identify states with the biggest gaps in student performance on state and NAEP tests. States could ask the NAEP governing board for help in analyzing those gaps.
Provide $200 million for state grants to set up P-16 preparedness councils, with members of the education, business, and military communities, to align state standards with the skills needed in college and the workplace.
Provide up to $75 million for state consortia to establish common standards and tests that are rigorous, internationally competitive, and aligned with postsecondary demands.

The bill introduced by Sen. Kennedy—the States Using Collaboration and Coordination to Enhance Standards for Students, or SUCCESS, Act—would instead focus on analyzing gaps between state and NAEP test results. It would provide money for state consortia to establish common standards and tests, rather than asking the NAEP governing board to develop such standards.

Just last week, the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board released a study showing that among its 16 member states reporting state test results in 2005, almost all “appear to have set their standards closer to the NAEP basic levels than the proficient levels.”

“Even with this lower target,” the report said, “many SREB states still have standards that appear less rigorous than the NAEP basic levels.” For example, while 87 percent of Tennessee 4th graders met or exceeded state standards in reading, only 59 percent scored at the “basic” level or higher on NAEP reading tests and only 27 percent scored “proficient” or higher.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said states want to work toward common standards, but that the process can’t be “federally driven” or “federally determined.” He praised both bills for providing incentives and an environment for states to work together “as an approach that we would support.”

Similarly, Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the bills as “definitely a step in the right direction.”

“Strategically, to do it on a voluntary basis so states buy in and say we want to work with this—I think is a real positive note in both bills,” she said.

But Mr. Shreve of the NCSL worried that a debate about voluntary national standards could divert attention from more fundamental changes to the NCLB law. “My biggest fear ... is that if you start talking about them now, that discussion sucks all the air out of the room when it comes to talking about true NCLB reforms, and I think that would be a travesty.”

‘Inexorable March’?

The standards debate is arising in the context of renewing the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, due to happen this year. Whether a standards bill could be considered apart from that reauthorization, which many doubt will happen on time, remains to be seen.

Michael Dannenberg, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank that co-sponsored the event with Sen. Dodd, spoke strongly in favor of voluntary national standards.

“The country is on an inexorable march toward national education standards,” Mr. Dannenberg said. “The question is no longer if, but when and how.”

Sen. Dodd played down differences between his bill and Sen. Kennedy’s, calling it “very encouraging” that various bills focus on raising education standards.

But he argued that his legislation would go further in changing the status quo. While the bill focuses on math and science standards as more politically feasible, he added, he’d support voluntary national standards in other subjects over time.

Sen. Kennedy’s office also downplayed differences between the bills. “As today’s economy redefines the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global marketplace, it’s crucial now more than ever for our schools to challenge all students to learn to high standards,” Mr. Kennedy said in an e-mail.

Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of the Washington think tank Education Sector and a former White House education-policy adviser under President Clinton, said that the Dodd-Ehlers bill would have a “tough row to hoe” in Congress. “When you get outside some policy elites, who are big on this, you don’t see a real groundswell of support” for national standards, he said.

Mr. Rotherham and others also questioned whether the NAEP governing board is best suited to develop common standards, given the contention that has surrounded NAEP’s own achievement levels, which some experts see as unrealistically high.

The national assessment was never designed to set targets with state accountability systems in mind, said Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “Nobody had judges sit down and say, ‘What’s reasonable?’ ” he argued. “If we want common content standards, we need to do some work, and it’s not clear to me that a small, federally appointed board is the right place to do that.”

Still, Mr. Wilhoit of the state chiefs’ council said it would be hard to discuss national standards without involving the National Assessment Governing Board.

“There’s no way we can do any of this work without putting the work of NAGB right at the center of it,” he said. “NAEP is becoming a national barometer, and it would be foolish not to use it as a starting point, but it’s only a starting point.”

Vol. 26, Issue 19, Pages 1,25

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