Educators Worry Standards Movement Lacks Broad-Based Backing

By Debra Viadero — October 30, 1991 4 min read

WASHINGTON--The biggest stumbling block to creating national curriculum standards for what students should learn is whether any such effort has begun to win the backing of most Americans, including their elected leaders, participants at a national forum on the subject concluded last week.

And, while the more than 30 educators and leaders of education and business groups at the forum here cautiously agreed that the creation of national standards would have a “major impact” on schools, they added a number of important caveats.

They said curriculum standards would only improve schooling if they were challenging enough, if all schools--rich and poor alike--had the resources necessary to teach to those standards, if teachers were adequately trained, and if reliable tests could be developed to measure whether schools were meeting them.

“What I see happening is the momentum being built among a relatively small group of people,” said John F. Jennings, counsel for the House Committee on Education and Labor. “I don’t know if that’s connected to the political base yet.”

Added William Moloney, superintendent of the Easton (Pa.) Public Schools, ‘When the parents in places like New Trier, Shaker Heights, and Bucks County finally realize that half of their children won’t get into a European university, then maybe you’ll get some movement.”

‘Remarkable Turnaround’

The Oct. 23 “Forum on National Curriculum” was organized by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The group sponsored the meeting to help it in its effort to formulate association policies on the issue.

In a nation that prizes local control of schooling, the notion of a national curriculum has long been anathema.

But some contend the specter of a national curriculum has been raised anew as national panels debate setting national standards and tests for all students, said Gordon Cawelti, the A.S.C.D.'s executive director.

“It seems to me we’re talking about a remarkable turnaround in the posture, if not the policy, of the federal government on a national curriculum,” Mr. Cawelti said.

To take the pulse on participants’ attitudes toward that movement, the association took an electronic straw poll.

Conference participants were asked to predict what impact national standards would have at the state and local levels, using a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the greatest. Most participants chose 4, suggesting the standards would have a “major impact.”

“They will function to focus some clarity on what we as a society are expecting our kids to learn,” said Ramsay Selden, director of the state education-assessment center for the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Parents, the public, and teachers are only vaguely aware of the content of the curriculum now.”

The standards would have to be accompanied, however, the participants said, by “systemic changes” in schools.

“That goes to teacher training, throwing out tracking, providing adequate resources for textbooks,” noted Mary Hatwood Futrell, the former president of the National Education Association and now a senior consultant for the Quality Education for Minorities Network.

The need to bolster educational resources is especially important in poorer schools, they said.

“Otherwise we can’t hold them accountable,’' said Marshall S. Smith, dean of the graduate school of education at Stanffiord University and a member of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing.

To a great degree, the participants said, the effectiveness of standards also depends on the quality of the tests used to gauge schools’ progress in meeting them and the uses to which those tests are put.

“Simply using the tests as a high-jump bar where everybody has to jump over it and, if you don’t, you fail isn’t going to accomplish anything,” said Gregory R. Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service.

In another straw poll, the participants appeared to express greater skepticism about the effect of a proposed “cluster system” of national tests. Under that proposal, being considered by the standards council, groups of states would join together to create tests that would somehow tie into a national testing system.

Most participants said such a system would enable states to share resources and information. Almost as many, however, said they feared it could create chaos and eventually lead to a uniform, national test.

Paying the Bill

Another major drawback, they noted, was cost. The kinds of tests envisioned by several national panels would rely more on performance-based measures, such as portfolios, and less on traditional multiple-choice questions.

“Almost all of the assessments being talked about are much more expensive than what’s out there now,” Mr. Anrig noted.

Based on the cost of administering Advanced Placement tests in five subjects to all schoolchildren, for example, one participant roughly calculated the cost of developing a national testing system at $3 billion.

“If we’re not prepared to put tens of millions of dollars in yearly operational costs and $3 billion in development costs, are we then willing to fall back on the kinds of cheap, multiple-choice tests we have now?” asked Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Mr. Jennings, of the House education committee, warned the participants that, ultimately, they would have to go to the Congress in search of money for the new tests.

Currently, according to some estimates, states and the federal government spend about $100 million a year on testing.

That kind of effort, however, requires strong backing from the American public and educators at the grassroots level.

“I think we have not developed a national will yet,” Hal Seamon, deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association, said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Educators Worry Standards Movement Lacks Broad-Based Backing