Published Online: April 24, 2007
Published in Print: April 25, 2007, as State Lawmakers Weigh Issue of National Standards

State Lawmakers Weigh Issue of National Standards

Supporters of national standards have found a fresh carrot to dangle before state legislators, who usually resist any federal reach into their business: more flexibility in implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, in exchange for embracing 50-state academic standards.

And the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, which debated the issue of national standards at its spring meeting in Washington, was working to hammer out a stand on the issue as it prepared to adjourn its annual spring forum here late last week.

Michael J. Petrilli

The way to fix problems with the NCLB law, which is up for renewal this year, is with a “grand bargain,” Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, told legislators at a panel discussion April 19. “We should have clear national standards and expectations and, in return, we should have serious flexibility for states.”

Bruce Hunter

To spark action among legislators on the issue of national standards, the NCSL’s education committee featured a debate among Mr. Petrilli, a supporter, David Shreve, an NCSL education policy expert, who urged legislators to resist national standards, and Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of public policy for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, whose group is split on the issue.

The topic was divisive enough that at the NCSL’s fall forum last year in San Antonio, the education committee debated whether to even have this debate. But legislators, who have long complained about federal micromanagement in states through NCLB, seemed open to the idea of Mr. Petrilli’s bargain. And while many would be unlikely to support standards developed and enforced by the federal government, a number of those at last week’s session were open to a more collaborative, voluntary effort among states.

The 5-year-old federal law requires annual testing of students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, with a goal for all students to reach proficiency by 2014. Schools that don’t show progress face an escalating set of consequences. The federal law has sparked debate over whether a national set of academic standards, which would apply to all states, is needed.

Some education policymakers are alarmed at the discrepancy between student achievement as determined by state-level tests and the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Many states report much lower proficiency rates on NAEP than on their state exams, suggesting that state standards may be too lax or have been weakened under the pressure of NCLB. ("Not All Agree on Meaning of NCLB Proficiency," April 18, 2007.)

That discrepancy “renders the No Child Left Behind identifications meaningless, and it does build the argument that there should be consistent standards,” said Sen. Jim Argue of Arkansas, a Democrat and the chairman of his chamber’s education committee.

Standards ‘Too High’

But NAEP shouldn’t be the driver behind national standards, said Mr. Hunter of the administrators’ group.

“NAEP standards are simply too high,” he told legislators during the debate. “It may be [that] state standards and tests are weak, but does that argue for national standards?”

Even his group can’t decide. When the AASA’s executive committee met in January to discuss the issue of national standards, it evenly split on the issue and didn’t take a stance.

Legislators were split, too, after last week’s debate.

Sen. Cynthia Nava, a Democrat from New Mexico, said she doesn’t think national standards will necessarily lead to improved student achievement and a narrowing of the achievement gaps between different demographic groups of students, which she said is the ultimate goal.

Such standards “aren’t the answer. It’s how you highly train teachers to implement those standards,” said Sen. Nava, who is the chairwoman of her chamber’s education committee.

California Assembly member Betty Karnette, a 31-year retired teacher from Los Angeles, questioned whether one set of standards would be too rigid to meet the varied needs of students in Long Beach, Calif., and rural Michigan. And South Dakota Rep. Bill Thompson, a 33-year retired teacher, wondered if test scores on a national exam would eventually replace a high school diploma, prompting some students to test out early and miss other important parts of the school experience.

Sen. Argue, of Arkansas, countered that there’s a practical and budgetary reason to consider national standards and testing.

“We spend millions in test development, inventories of questions, consultants, testing companies,” he said. “If the 50 states were working cooperatively together, we’d be saving a ton of money.”

Mr. Shreve, who advises the legislators as one of the NCSL’s education policy experts, offered the strongest opposition to national standards. The problem with NCLB isn’t a lack of national standards, he argued, but the law itself. States may be relaxing their academic standards and broadening what it means for students to achieve proficiency because they’re under pressure to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, he said.

“Empowering the federal government to do this is a recipe for disaster. Any administration would be tempted to expand oversight to steer money and policy,” said Mr. Shreve, pointing to problems discovered with the Reading First program. “Let’s fix NCLB before we initiate a discussion of national and federal standards.”

But Mr. Petrilli stressed that the federal government would not give up its role in education. “The public thinks education is a national priority,” he said.

Vol. 26, Issue 34, Pages 20,22

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