‘Confusing’ Array of Players Charts Course Toward National Standards

By Lynn Olson — October 23, 1991 11 min read
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Before the 1989 education summit between President Bush and the nation’s governors, most educators talked about the creation of national standards and assessments as an idea that could never take root here.

But since then, a veritable explosion in the number of groups promoting the concept has occurred.

Organizations are striving to develop national standards and assessments for students, teachers, and principals. Curriculum associations are working to develop national standards in English, mathematics, science, and, possibly, the social studies. And state and local school districts are rushing to develop their own performance-based assessments, often with the help of commercial test publishers.

The resulting babble of voices, which one observer described as “characteristically American,” is hard to keep straight-even for those most deeply involved in the effort.

“It’s so confusing, it’s unbelievable,” said Lauren B. Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the leading proponents of national standards and assessments.

Walk into the office of Ruth Mitchell, associate director at the Council for Basic Education, and you get a glimpse of what Ms. Resnick is talking about.

Spread across the floor is a multicolored chart summarizing all of the current proposals for curriculum standards in various subjects.

Ms. Mitchell and her colleagues at the council compiled the chart after they realized that no one could toll them who was doing what in the area of national standards.

“The fact that there was no one whom I could call up and say, ‘Explain it all to me,’ is why we did this,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Despite its messy nature, observers agree that the push to create national standards and assessments represents a shift in thinking of historic proportions and one with potentially momentous consequences.

“We’re a country that is trying to create a national system of education without creating a national ministry of education,” said Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “And what that means is that we have somehow got to come to a consensus without any one institution in our society driving it.”

Not Left Out

For some organizations, the new emphasis on standards and assessments provides a window of opportunity for cementing projects that were already under way.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, for example, was rounded in 1987, well before the education summit. Standards-setting efforts in mathematics and science also predate the current flurry of activity.

But other groups are less willing participants who are jumping into the tumult out of necessity.

“I think there are some of them moving simply because they don’t want to get left out,” said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

This January, for example, the National Council for the Social Studies will decide whether to initiate a standards-setting project. "[W]hether we agree with it or not, we feel that we need to be a player,” explained Frances Haley, the organization’s executive director.

The resulting highly political process is one in which various players are angling for primacy. In the words of one observer, “no one is above the fray.”

Already, some groups appear to be falling by the wayside in the competition to attract attention and adherents. Educate America Inc., a private organization rounded in 1991 by Saul Cooperman, New Jersey’s former commissioner of education, began by announcing that it would develop mandatory national achievement tests. Now its officials say they only want to be cheerleaders for the rest of the movement.

‘Great Confusion’

The current wealth of proposals and counterproposals is also producing a high level of cacophony and consternation.

“There’s great confusion,” Mr. Tucker said. “Sometimes it’s hard to separate the confusion from the genuine disagreement, because you don’t know whether you disagree until you are reasonably certain that you’re using language the same way, and, clearly, we’re not.”

“The distinction between a test and an examination,” he noted, “the use of the word ‘calibration,’ the idea of mastery--there might be six or seven key words that don’t yet have common definitions. We’re kind of groping toward a new vocabulary as a nation.”

In the process, Ms. Resnick argued, it is hard to keep some issues on the table: such as the idea that the new generation of assessments should be designed to be studied for, or that they should promote equity and fairness by holding all students to a single standard and providing them with equal resources.

Part of the problem is the myriad objectives that people want a national examination system to achieve: ranging from shocking the school system into reform, to providing a source of motivation for individual students, to paving the way for changes in teacher education.

“You get quite a bit of discussion that doesn’t connect too well,” Ms. Resnick said, “because people have really different ideas in mind, but that doesn’t surface during the course of the debate.”

Points in Common

Despite such confusion, a few points are becoming clear.

First, although a plethora of groups has recommended developing national assessments for students, few are actually working to create such exams.

The Bush Administration, the President’s Education Policy Advisory Committee, Educate America, the National Education Goals Panel, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, and the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills all favor some form of national examination system.

But only the New Standards Project--operated jointly by the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center-and the College Board have actually put money into developing assessments at the national level.

Second, the New Standards Project is the only player that has put substantial amounts of money behind its efforts--in the form of some $2.5 million in grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Given the commitment and influence of the New Standards Project, many are viewing it as the research-and-development arm for the entire movement.

Overlap in Participation

Third, despite the relatively large number of organizations now involved in standards-setting and assessment at the national level, a few key individuals span several of the commissions, projects, and organizations. And many of them have ties to the National Center on Education and the Economy:

  • Ms. Resnick, who co-directs the New Standards Project, also serves on the center’s Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which recommended the creation of a system of national standards and assessments back in June 1990.

She chairs the assessment task force for SCANS, she is a member of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, and she chaired the advisory group on student achievement and citizenship for the goals panel.

“To a certain extent, if you talk to Lauren, you talk to everybody,” noted Arnold H. Packer, executive director of SCANS.

  • William E. Brock, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, co-chaired the center’s skills commission, sits on the President’s Education Policy Advisory Committee, and chairs the SCANS commission.
  • Mr. Tucker, president of the center, led the technical-planning subgroup on adult literacy and lifelong learning for the goals panel, which--not surprisingly--recommended the development of a national assessment for college graduates.
  • Thomas H. Kean, a former Governor of New Jersey and a member of the center’s board of directors, also serves on the President’s education advisory committee and is the chairman of Educate America.
  • Other influential figures whose names appear again and again are David W. Hornbeck, former superintendent of education in Maryland, and Marshall S. Smith, dean of the graduate school of education at Stanford University.
  • The overlap in participation--as well as the seemingly endless stream of meetings and conversations between representatives of the various groups-helps explain why certain ideas are emerging in common from a variety of sources, several participants noted.

    “It is not as if we are all going forward ignorant of what others are doing and pursuing our own route to the exclusion of others,” Mr. Tucker said.

    Coming to a Consensus

    Fourth, although points of consensus are few and far between, they do exist.

    Most organizations now appear to be talking about the creation of a national assessment system, not a single national test. Many people advocate the idea of states working together--or in “clusters” to develop regional assessments that would meet a single national standard.

    Everyone seems to agree that more multiple-choice tests are not needed. Most people want the new generation of assessments to be performance-based and to reflect more closely the kinds of skills that would be required on the job or in real-world endeavors.

    And there is tremendous pressure--from a variety of sources-to move quickly.

    President Bush has said he would like the first national assessment for 4th graders to be available by September 1993. Gov. Roy Remer of Colorado, the former chairman of the goals panel and a co-chairman of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, has described a similar timetable.

    The New Standards Project hopes to have pilot assessments in mathematics and English/language arts ready by this summer. And the President’s education advisory committee has also recommended that the first tests, for 4th graders, be ready for use by 1993-94.

    The result, particularly for curriculum organizations, is an incredible pressure to develop standards around which new forms of assessment could be built as soon as possible.

    “We had been thinking we had time,” said Miles Myers, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. “But I received calls from people this summer saying could you mail [the standards] to us tomorrow.”

    Unanswered Questions

    Meanwhile, wide differences remain regarding what a new system of national standards and assessments should look like.

    Many organizations have recommended student assessments at the 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade levels, primarily because that is the design now used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Congressionally mandated testing program.

    But at least some groups are questioning the wisdom of a 12th-grade exam. The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called for the creation of a “certificate of initial mastery” at age 16, or around grade 10. And that view has been adopted by at least one state, Oregon.

    Ms. Resnick argued that to place the high-school assessment at the 12th-grade level “is a mistake.”

    “The goal is to have assessments and standards that everybody is expected to meet,” she explained. “And that means you need to put them in your system at a point where there’s still time to catch up.”

    There is also confusion about which subjects should be assessed. Most organizations have used the list of five core subjects adopted by the goals panel. But the New Standards Project has a much longer list, including the arts, civics, foreign language, and work readiness.

    Finally, SCANS has called for the assessment of work competencies whose relationship to particular subject areas is not readily apparent. Mr. Packer claims that the organization’s final report, scheduled for release this March, will resolve such differences.

    A High Level of Energy

    In addition, it is not clear how NAEP--the one existing form of national assessment--fits into the picture.

    There are currently proposals to radically expand NAEP to assess more students more regularly in more subjects and to allow for state, district, and school-by-school comparisons of performance. But no one has explained what the relationship would be between a revised NAEP and a new generation of national exams.

    The relationship between a national assessment system and state assessment programs is also unclear.

    Eventually, most predict, greater coordination and coherence will be needed at the national level. “You will have to have a focal body, because you won’t be able to sustain the energy level,” Ms. Mitchell said. “The level of energy now is high, but... it’s all going in different directions.”

    The most prominent idea--and one likely to be endorsed by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing--is to create a National Standards Board, launched by Congress as a private, nonprofit entity. The beard would be responsible for setting standards and for ensuring that new examinations met those standards.

    “I don’t think the country is ready for that yet,” Mr. Tucker said. “But the various activities that are under way in and out of government are leading us in that direction.”

    For now, most observers and participants contend, the high level of confusion, jockeying, and uncertainty is likely to persist as Americans set about the daunting task of creating a truly national system of assessments and standards.

    “The multiplicity of voices reflects the country,” Ms. Mitchell said. “It makes things slow. It could be that nothing will come out of it. But it could be the only way to approach it in this country.”

    A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as ‘Confusing’ Array of Players Charts Course Toward National Standards


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