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Setting The Standards

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The system revolves around a series of syllabuses, which aren't required-reading lists but broad educational standards. As part of the pilot test, teachers and scholars in each of the core subject areas are working to outline the higher-order thinking and problemsolving skills that American students must acquire to compete in a changing global economy. "Everything else follows from that,'' Resnick says.

"We have wrestled with the details of what a standard is,'' notes Paul LeMahieu, director of planning, research, and evaluation for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, one of the project's pilot sites. "How you define a standard will have no small implication on whether you can even implement it across sites. We don't have any conclusive answer yet.''

The new system will attempt to measure practical applications and thinking skills rather than simple fact-based knowledge. Says Tucker: "We are hoping to create an examination system that will put a premium on thinking, problem solving, and a capacity to apply knowledge to real-world problems.'' Those skills require some factual knowledge, so the system might include a small number of multiple-choice questions in the familiar fill-in-the-bubble format. "But we're asking for a lot more than that,'' Tucker says. Resnick notes that the system will almost certainly emphasize what she calls "open-ended'' examination approaches: essay questions, portfolios of student work, and long-term projects.

Clearly, in an era of oft-heated battles over what students need to learn, the initial task of setting national standards presents a formidable hurdle. With that in mind, the pilot project will most likely begin by setting standards for mathematics and English literacy skills because relatively less controversy surrounds content in those areas. And considerable work has already been done by groups such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to set standards.

It will be more difficult to agree on standards in humanities and the social sciences. But even in social studies, where a movement toward multicultural and "Afrocentric'' curricula has bitterly divided educators, Tucker believes a national consensus can be reached. "If you look around at the rest of the world where examination systems are in place, they have reached agreement,'' he says. "That doesn't necessarily mean the American people can do it, but it means it is in principle doable. If we can't do it, shame on us.''

The plan calls for the creation of a National Education Standards Board--initially composed of the pilot states and districts--to set standards and develop model exams. States and districts could adopt the model exams or create their own, calibrated to the national standards. Teachers, schools, and districts would be free to determine the appropriate curriculum and textbooks for their students. This flexibility distinguishes the NCEE and LRDC proposal from others under discussion, but it also poses one of the biggest technical challenges. "At the moment,'' Resnick says, "we are putting forth the view that there can be considerable variability among exams, and they can still be calibrated at some judgmental level. We want to see if we can really do that. That's one of the major questions.''

The system is likely to include three components--a one-time exam, portfolios of student work, and long-term projects. Rather than simply requiring students to regurgitate facts, the exam would feature essays and "live'' performances assessed by teacher-judges. For example, a student might be asked to demonstrate practical literacy skills by assembling equipment according to written instructions and diagrams. A simulated economics game played by a group of students might be used to determine how well they work together.

Both the portfolios and projects would involve longterm work. In cooperation with teachers, students would compile a collection of their best work, such as lab reports, term papers, and creative writing assignments. Projects, most likely done in groups, might involve building a model bridge, investigating an aspect of community life, or completing a complex laboratory experiment.

Tucker sees some parallels between the proposed exam system and the Boy Scouts' merit-badge system, in which scouts receive a badge of mastery after demonstrating certain skills. Under Tucker's proposal, most students would pass the examination and receive a certificate of initial mastery by about age 16. "But it is a mastery standard,'' he notes. "When you get it is a whole lot less important than whether you achieve it.''

People obviously would have to replace machines in scoring examinations based so heavily on exercises that rarely have one correct answer. Here again, teachers would be central. "Teachers have the professional judgment that ought to be brought to bear,'' Tucker explains. "We also believe, based on the experience of other countries, that the experience teachers have when they do that kind of assessment is the best staff-development program going. Making tough judgments about kids' responses to these challenges and discussing them with other teachers brings teachers to reflect on their own practice. It's a very different kind of thing from sitting in rows in workshops hearing a lecture.''

The system won't work, Tucker adds, "unless some part of the teacher's time on a regular basis is devoted to scoring students' performance on these assessments, time that is not now spent doing that. We will have to work on figuring out how that is to be done.''

Project participants hope that the first part of the pilot test, which involves 300 students, will be completed by June 1992. This first phase focuses on only math and literacy, but exams in all core subjects should be field-tested and available for widespread use by 1997. Although the system would not be federally mandated, Tucker hopes that, by 2000, the assessment results will become the basis for awarding high school diplomas, admitting students to college or apprenticeship programs, and hiring employees.

--D.G.

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