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National Standards and Assessments

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One of the newest and most sweeping proposals of the reform movement, the controversial effort to establish national standards and assessments has risen to the top of the education agenda with astonishing speed.

The term "standards'' is shorthand for what American students should know and be able to do; and the term assessments refers to methods of monitoring and measuring students' progress.

Proponents of a national system point out that tests already drive instruction in America's schools, but in the wrong direction. Instead of allowing the publishers of standardized tests and textbooks to continue setting educational expectations, the reformers want teachers and scholars to define a set of educational standards, "benchmarked'' to worldclass standards.

If the assessments truly measure what we want children to know and be able to do, they argue, then they will drive instruction in the right direction. Texts and tests would be redesigned to be compatible with the new curricular standards.

Since the mid-1980s, several national disciplinary organizations have been hard at work developing curricular standards, or "frameworks,'' as they are often called. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, has issued a major report calling for sweeping changes in the way mathematics is taught and detailing recommendations for what American school children should know and be able to do. The National Academy of Sciences, with the participation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061 and the National Science Teachers Association, is working on a similar effort in science. The National Council for History Standards, involving an array of professional and administrative organizations, is assembling national curricular frameworks in history. And efforts involving the National Council of Teachers of English are under way to develop national standards in English studies and language arts.

In addition, a number of states--most notably California--have published or are developing curricular frameworks. Unlike previous scope-and-sequence guidelines, these new frameworks tend to define more completely the content of the curriculum and to designate specific instructional strategies.

The federal government has also played a key role in moving curricular reform to the national level. President Bush convened a summit of the nation's governors in 1990, which led to the establishment of national education goals. Subsequently, Congress created the National Council on Education Standards and Testing which strongly recommended a few months ago the development of voluntary national standards and assessments; states and school districts would be encouraged to participate.

There are a number of different national proposals on the table, but perhaps the most highly developed at this point is that of the New Standards Project, headed by Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy and Lauren Resnick of University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center. Under their system, teachers and scholars would develop broad educational standards in the various subject areas, emphasizing higher-order thinking skills and problem solving.

The exams created to measure student progress would put a premium on those skills and on the capacity of students to apply knowledge to real-world problems. These assessments would go well beyond pencil-and-paper tests, to student portfolios and exhibitions and long-term projects. Students would have some say in deciding when they feel they have achieved the standards and are ready to be assessed.

Critics fear that a system of national standards and assessments will erode local control, lead to a national curriculum, become rigid and standardized, fail to address problems of inequity, and divert scarce resources from other pressing needs.

The California Frameworks, which are the most advanced and sophisticated in the country, suggest how difficult and controversial a national effort is likely to be. Defining what students ought to know, especially in history and literature, is in a sense a political act that generates as much heat as light. Frameworks that are too detailed and mandate coverage that is too extensive handcuff teachers much as scope-and-sequence requirements have in the past. Frameworks that are too nebulous and too flexible leave teachers unsure of what they should be doing and make the problem of student assessment more difficult.

Even supporters of standards and assessments agree that the movement's success depends on a massive program of professional development. In California, where teachers on average have spent nearly 20 years in the classroom, shifting to new ways of teaching math or reading is creating significant tension and dissension. Indeed, many teachers are simply not prepared to deal with either the content or the pedagogy recommended in the new frameworks. Schools of education, always slow to change, have not made the state frameworks a central part of the preparation of new teachers.

Some who have watched the California effort closely anticipate that the problems will be magnified on the national scene. Moreover, as efforts to develop frameworks proliferate, they fear that the task of meshing district, state, and national standards will be chaotic if not impossible.

But the push for a system of national standards and assessments is gaining momentum with support from the White House, federal and state political leaders, and a host of educational organizations. And polls indicate that most Americans favor such a system, although it isn't clear that those responding really understand what it is they support.

The question is not whether standards and assessments are a good idea; the question is whether an affordable system that is widely acceptable and operable can be developed. Supporters point out that the movement should not be evaluated in a vacuum but in the context of the system that is now in place. Says one national educational leader: "I worry about creating national standards and assessments, then I look at the system we have now, and I shed my fears.''

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