By All Measures: The Debate Over Standards and Assessments

By Ronald A. Wolk — June 17, 1992 4 min read

The idea of a system of national standards and assessments is one of the most powerful and provocative to emerge from the nearly 10-year-old school-reform movement. Pushed by the Administration and the National Governors’ Association, and endorsed by widely respected educational, business, and political leaders, it has moved to the top of the reform agenda with astonishing speed.

But as the notion has gathered momentum, it has also attracted vocal critics and sparked a vigorous debate.

Perhaps the greatest concern is that a system of “world-class standards’’ linked to “high-stakes examinations’’ will do even more damage to disadvantaged students already victimized by inequities among schools. Many also question whether such a system is feasible, given both the costs and the technical and logistical problems entailed in its development. And, its detractors charge, if such a system were practicable, it could erode local control, lead to undue centralization, divert attention from other needed reforms, and siphon off scarce resources.

Even some who do not oppose the concept of national standards and assessments worry that the process is moving too fast, that we do not yet know enough to establish such a system, and that there are considerable risks that have not yet been properly weighed.

We decided to devote this special Education Week Commentary section to the topic of national standards and assessments not because it is a so-called “hot button’’ issue, but because it provides a unique and practical context for a national discussion among educators, policymakers, parents, and the general public of the fundamental questions about schooling in America. As the following pages suggest, this topic encompasses nearly all of the central issues embodied in the school-reform movement.

The current debate is critically important for two very practical reasons:

First, as one prominent business leader puts it, the train has already left the station. The New Standards Project--a coalition of 17 states and half a dozen school districts enrolling nearly half the public-school students in the United States--is hard at work developing content standards, and began field-testing assessment tasks in May. There are other efforts under way, but none so far along. The U.S. Congress is also expected to pass an education bill this summer that will include some version of a standards-and-assessments system. On that perilous journey from idea to reality, it is in everyone’s interest to assure that the train travels on the best and safest policy track.

Second, if such a system is even half as promising as its advocates insist, then it deserves careful analysis, thoughtful consideration, and informed debate. Proponents argue that a national standards-and-assessments system has the potential to be a lever for transforming schools from institutions modeled after 19th-century factories to true learning communities. They see it as a massive effort in the professional development of teachers, a merging of curriculum and assessment, and a compelling incentive for students, teachers, and schools to achieve higher educational standards.

Perhaps more than any other proposal to come along in a decade, the idea of national standards and assessments seems to divide people who would generally agree on most other educational issues. The topic is far too complex and controversial to expect even natural allies to agree on all points, but the confusion of definitions makes it difficult to know not only what particular points are in dispute, but whether people actually do disagree. As Albert Shanker points out in the following pages, the advocates and opponents are not necessarily talking about the same things and do not share a common definition of the critical terms of the debate.

The confusion is made worse by the fact that the debate is often over the abstract idea of standards and assessments, not over a specific proposal. Thus, people argue not so much against each other’s expressed positions as against the positions they ascribe to each other. That swishing noise we so often hear in the debate is the sound of straw men falling.

Our objective in undertaking this special Education Week Commentary section, as well as the back-page essays leading up to it, is not to promote one side or the other. Our hope is that this exchange of views will help focus the discussion by exposing areas of misunderstanding, and by highlighting and sharpening the areas of substantive agreement and disagreement.

The following section begins with an edited transcript of a panel discussion of the proposal of the New Standards Project, involving Marc S. Tucker and Lauren B. Resnick, the co-directors of the project; Gregory R. Anrig, the president of Educational Testing Service; and Theodore R. Sizer, the founder and chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools. The discussion was held in Chicago in mid-May as part of an Education Week Forum for local journalists.

The second part of this special section is a compendium of commentaries by some 40 educators and policymakers who were invited to write on various issues raised in the standards-and-assessments debate. They have been edited, and sometimes excerpted, to avoid excessive repetition. The commentaries are organized under five general headings: Benefits, Drawbacks, Equity, Obstacles, and Other Needs.

We are grateful to all who participated in this effort, and to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for underwriting both the Education Week Forum and this special Commentary section.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as By All Measures: The Debate Over Standards and Assessments