ETS Report Aims to Inform Debate on National Standards

July 23, 2009 2 min read

By guest blogger Erik Robelen:

With political momentum building to develop common standards across the nation, the Educational Testing Service today is releasing a new report to help inform the effort, from providing a brief history of previous attempts and examining the wide variations in current standards to outlining key challenges and risks that lie ahead. Officials from ETS and elsewhere will discuss the report at 2 p.m. at the National Press Club in Washington.

The report argues that, assuming any national standards would be voluntary, it’s critical to ensure a process that will promote widespread buy-in among states.

“Since voluntary standards by definition will be unenforceable, sign-on and eventual adoption is dependent on the respectability, integrity, competence, and stature of the individuals involved in the process; and on the perceived soundness of the operating arrangement to plan and create related products,” writes Paul E. Barton, the report’s author and a senior associate at ETS’ Policy Information Center.

The report comes as the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are leading an effort to develop common standards. Just yesterday, in fact, my colleague Sean Cavanagh reported here that draft standards from that process were posted on a blog hosted by Core Knowledge, an advocacy group, which had some not-too-kind comments on the work so far.

Which brings us back to the ETS report. It notes that the recent history of efforts to create national standards may not be encouraging.

“The nation’s inability to implement a program of national standards over the past two decades suggests that efforts are hard to sustain and that reaching consensus is difficult,” the report says.

There are plenty of challenges along the way. For one, Barton writes: “People’s ideas and concepts about national standards differ widely.”

He says it’s “unclear how much advocates want to strive for standardizing what schools teach across the United States as opposed to raising rigor in general—which is more in keeping with the nation’s history of leaving judgments about education to localities and states.”

In addition, he says it won’t be easy “settling issues over pedagogical approaches to teach subjects such as mathematics and reading, and controversial topics like evolution.”

Overall, Barton emphasizes that the ETS report is not meant to advocate any particular approach to national standards, or even to advocate for or against creating them.

At the event this afternoon, ETS officials will be joined by Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Bethany Little, the chief education counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.