By All Measures: A New ‘Social Compact’ for Mastery in Education

By Marc Tucker — June 17, 1992 10 min read

For these kids, in fact, there is a disincentive. Because what you need to get a diploma--which is the ticket both to college and to jobs in this country--is simply to have a 7th-grade literacy level, show up at least most of the time, and not cause too much trouble.

If you were to make the mistake of taking a tough course and flunking it, why then, you would be in some danger of not getting your diploma.

We’re the only advanced country in the world that I know of that, in this way, has systematically deprived our teachers of motivated students.

I know of no country with high educational achievement, that is broad and general, without a real and direct connection between students’ performance in school and what they want for themselves later in life.

For this reason, the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce proposed that this country create an examination system that would award a “certificate of initial mastery’’ to students who achieve a world-class standard of learning around the age of 16.

When I started talking to people in this country about examination systems and certificates, the reaction was not friendly. I was told that I was describing the European system. “They track, we don’t,’' people said. “We have an open education system that provides opportunities to everybody, up and down the line, not an elitist system of the European kind. And we’re not about to change that.’'

That is a perfectly laudable sentiment that has absolutely nothing to do with the facts.

The fact is that the United States has the most vicious tracking system in the world, at least among advanced, developed countries. In many countries in Europe, grouping kids by ability before they are 14 years old is either culturally not done or is literally illegal to do. In some countries, it is illegal to give standardized tests to kids under 14 years old.

In this country, however, based on what we take to be kids’ native ability, we make judgments about them in 1st grade or earlier, on the basis of which we say: “Jack, you are clearly made of good stuff and have it in you to go to the top. We will, therefore, give you challenging material, and we will grade you, because that’s the kind of kid you are.’'

On the other hand, we say to Jill: “You clearly are never going to make it anywhere. You don’t have the genes. We will give you very different and much less challenging material. And we’ll give you A’s and B’s for showing up and being a good kid, because that’s all you’re capable of.’'

Those Jills turn out, in the main, to be low-income, Hispanics, African-Americans, or other minority-group members. This country, more than any other in the world, came to the view in the 1920’s (and it is largely unchanged) that real academic achievement is something of which only about 30 percent of the population is capable. The rest are genetically incapable of academic success. That is not what most of the rest of the world believes.

And so we came up with the idea of a mastery standard.

If you’re going to be a lawyer or an architect or a doctor, the question is: Do you have what it takes to do the job? You pass the bar exam, or you don’t. You pass the architectural registration boards, or you don’t. You get your pilot’s license, or you don’t. We don’t ask how long it took you to do it.

The American education system, on the other hand, is a system that uses a time-based standard--not a mastery standard. When you get your diploma, we know that you’ve been in school for 12 years. Beyond that, we know almost nothing about what you know and can do.

We are proposing a mastery standard for education. We do so, because we believe that nothing could more directly challenge the ingrained, fundamental assumption on the part of American schoolpeople and the general public that what explains academic achievement is what’s in the genes. A mastery standard predicates right up front that all kids can learn. That is the premise of the New Standards Project. It is the fundamental assumption of a whole new system.

In such a system, it’s not just a matter of learning more. It is also a matter of learning differently. The kind of learning that we ought to want is different from what we used to want for most kids. Lauren Resnick has described this as the “thinking curriculum,’' or kids who can think and solve problems.

How does the idea of a thinking curriculum relate to assessment?

If one of the things you want to know about kids is how they will function as adults in a world in which the problem is not neatly given up front, in which part of the problem is to figure out what the problem is and to frame it in a way that is addressable; if part of the challenge that you face is not simply to use the knowledge that you already have, but to figure out what knowledge you don’t have and get it and integrate it with other pieces of knowledge into a solution; if part of the way in which you will typically be called on to work is not to do this alone, but with others; if there is not a single right answer, but many right answers, some of which are better than others, and part of the problem is to develop a set of internal criteria that will enable you to judge which answers are the better ones, then the question becomes: How would you find out how kids could function in a world like this?

The only answer that we know of is: Put them in situations like that and find out. No other way.

This suggests that the fundamental unit of an examination system ought to be the task. You would ask kids to perform tasks that might take them three seconds, three minutes, three hours, three weeks, three months, or even a year to address. You would want to construct an examination system out of tasks that are as close as possible to the kinds of behaviors that you would want kids to be able to exhibit as adults; the kinds of thinking that they would have to do as adults.

In giving kids tasks of this sort, you are in some sense creating a world within the school of real things for kids to do. The line between testing and curriculum almost goes away. You can’t assess kids’ performance unless you give them the tasks. And you can’t assess their degree of achievement unless they actually perform the tasks.

But first, you have to be clear about what you want kids to know and be able to do, or what we call “content standards.’' Those content standards become the target for creating the assessment. Content standards also become the target for teachers who are constructing curriculum. Content standards, curriculum, and assessment--a kind of a three-legged stool.

We think of this as an “effort driven’’ assessment, curriculum, and instructional system: the beginning of a systemic view of school reform.

But if the objective is not simply to measure student performance, but to improve it, then it follows that we must change what is taught and how it is taught for millions of American kids in millions of American classrooms.

And at the core of that--and at the heart of the kind of national examination system we envision--is a new notion of staff and professional development.

If you were to get all of the states together in one room and say, “Why don’t we create [a national examination] system?’' you can be almost certain that you would get the lowest common denominator, and it would be a long way from what I have just described. So we decided that the way to start is to find some states and school districts that are generally in agreement with our ideas about standards, curriculum, and assessment and to form a collaborative around a set of principles.

Which is exactly what we did. We went out and asked them to join us in this enterprise. We didn’t ask them to forget everything that they were doing. We said, “A lot of you are pioneers in this kind of work,’' especially in the development of performance assessments. “We would like to join forces with you, building on what you have done, so that we can together build something that’s better than any of us could do individually.’'

That means that while we want to work toward a single standard--or a single system of standards--for kids in the United States, we also want to build a system that can accommodate a lot of different assessments. Not one exam or one test for everybody, but a whole bunch of different ones. We said: “You can have your own exam.’'

What I mean by a single standard, or a single system of standards, is that, when we get where we want to go, a pass in New York State will be regarded as having hit the same standard as a pass in Maine or a pass in Virginia or a pass in Oregon or a pass in California. One standard, many exams.

The first principle was that this would be voluntary. The second was that it would be teacher-based. Keep in mind that the object is not simply to measure student performance, but to change what happens to kids in the classroom and, therefore, to improve their performance. That cannot be done without the teachers. Teachers are the center. It is what they believe about what kids ought to know and be able to do, how they should be taught, how classrooms ought to be organized, that in the end is going to determine the success or failure of the entire venture.

At the same time, we recognized that a system based on teacher initiative should be connected to the best thinking in the country on what the standards ought to be--the work, for example, of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics--as well as to the policy structure. So we set ourselves the complex task of involving lots of people in the states--ultimately, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of teachers--in this effort.

Lastly, we determined that such a system must be flexible. I have already cited one example: many exams, one standard. There is another more subtle way in which flexibility is essential.

We think that, in the beginning, it’s going to be important to have an exam that students sit down for, take, and get up. But we would like to get to a point where much--if not most--of the score that the students get depends on their cumulative accomplishments over time. In other words, an assessment of their accomplishments in tasks that took not three seconds or three minutes or even three hours, but weeks or even months over a period of years. In the first instance, we expect that those tasks will be centrally designed. But over time, we want them to be largely designed by classroom teachers for their own use, in their own schools, in their own classrooms. That’s flexibility. That will be a world in which the teachers have internalized the standards. They will, in effect, become the standards of the teaching profession. It is a world that is not uncommon in a number of other professions in the United States, but we have never treated teachers the way we have treated other professionals.

What I’ve laid out is not just an examination system. It’s a reform agenda--a systemic reform agenda.

But I have left out one of its most important components, without which it is not only incomplete, it is worse than what we have. And that is the social compact.

Imagine that all we did was raise the bar for kids in the United States to a world-class standard of achievement, and then we stopped. Everyone knows that kids are on anything but a level playing field. We believe there needs to be a new compact between the society and its kids.

Yes, we propose to abandon different standards for different kids and to create a system that has one standard for all. But we cannot do that without a commitment to provide a world in which every kid has a fair shot at achieving that standard. In particular, we must assure that kids in schools where these standards are being employed, and where something depends on their achievement, have a curriculum that will get them there and have teachers who are prepared to teach it well. That may be the single most important feature of the system that we have in mind.

We have started out working at the 4th-, 8th-, and 10th-grade levels. We are working this year with 4th-grade English/language arts and mathematics. We have begun working on work-related skills. Science is close behind.

This is not all talk and palaver. The ideas that I have been trying to describe are now reality in the form of some honest-to-God tasks that teachers have created, that have been tried out initially and refined, and that are now being field-tested all over the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as By All Measures: A New ‘Social Compact’ for Mastery in Education