Education Opinion

By All Measures: 8 Questions: On Cost, Impact, The Politics of Who Chooses

By Theodore R. Sizer — June 17, 1992 8 min read
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Let me raise eight questions that I’ve scribbled down as I listened to the arguments in favor of national standards and an examination system to assess the meeting of those standards.

Question No. 1: Who sets the standards, and by what right? Who has the right to decide what U.S. history, in detail or in general, my child learns? Who has the right to decide how my kid is presented with questions of evolution?

My answer to that is schoolpeople have that right, because school has to “keep.’' You can’t have a different U.S. history course for each kid. However, I the parent deserve the right to look into the eye of the person with the power to change what’s being done. I feel that my rights over the mind of my child are at risk if I do not have the power of immediate redress of grievances--not an application that might be heard three years later, but immediate and close connection worthy of intervention with those who would decide what ideas my kid’s going to be presented with.

My examples, of course, are loaded examples. I will sit still for a more distant authority in computational mathematics, effective reading, or clear writing. But when you get into senior-high-school work, the question of who sets the standards and by what right is a fundamental one. It deals with intellectual freedom, and it is a question that is very rarely discussed in the national debate over standards and assessments. People say “Oh, yes,’' and then they move on to something else. It’s easier to talk about technicalities than the question of freedom of the mind.

People say that’s extreme. I say if that’s extreme, reflect on the politics of the National Endowment for the Arts and tell me how extreme it is.

Question No. 2: What is the financial cost of a truly authentic assessment? In the kinds of things that Lauren is doing, that Marc, Howard Gardner, I, and others are advocating and doing, we’re all marching to the same drummer. It’s very complicated; it’s fascinating; the kid doesn’t know when she’s being tested and when she’s being pedagogged, if that’s a word. And it’s wonderful stuff.

But if you’re going to use this the way standardized tests are used, what will it cost in dollars? Various people have made cuts at it. Probably the most thorough was by a professor at Boston College, George Madaus. And it may be anywhere, depending on how you define it, from 6 to 20 times as much [as current practice], using the examples from the European as well as American experience.

There are two important questions to be considered:

First, is anybody in the current debate over a national examination system talking about the costs of doing it right? And the answer is: There’s very little talk about that. Notice, for instance, in America 2000 [that] there’s no talk about who’s paying how much for American Achievement Tests. So the question of dollars is not being addressed.

Second, if the cost is many more orders of magnitude than we are presently spending (which is already very large), is that sum better spent for school reform in some other way? If there is limited funding for reform, is the best place to put it in a national system of examinations, or is there some more appropriate place to put it--a place the funding would have more impact and have a greater chance of being effective?

Question No. 3: Are “tests’’ the best lever we have for reform? Marc and I agree completely that across our two projects our ultimate goal is the same; we want to change the system--improve the quality of the education provided the kids, and, therefore, the standards of the work of all kids. Is an examination system the best lever to accomplish that?

We all have some idea of how complicated this is to do well. We all know, Greg Anrig probably more than any of us, that when you take deliberately idiosyncratic essay material and try to apply an assessment system on it, it’s exceedingly difficult and expensive. And we’re not sure it’s worth the money or effort. Has the Advanced Placement examination in biology changed science teaching in the United States? Have the New York State Regents exams changed the quality of education in New York State schools?

The answers aren’t clear. [The psychologist] Barbara Lerner, for instance, makes a strong argument that minimum-competency tests have had some powerful influence. My wandering around schools suggests the same thing, that empty warehousing of kids has stopped in a lot of places because totally neglectful schools are exposed [by the tests]. That is at the bottom, and we’re not talking about standards there, we’re talking about prevention of the abuse of children. In that case, it certainly has worked.

But the historical evidence is, at best, shaky that an examination system pulls levers at the top. The examples given are often from foreign countries, and there is, of course, a correlation there because there is a clear set of what the national objectives are. As one who has taught in one of those systems and has had kids go through another, and as a historian, I’m respectful but skeptical of that.

If one wants to look at correlations in international comparisons, then the way to get high test scores is not to teach in English. The lousy test scores are in countries that have English as the home language. That’s a correlation, too. One always has to be very careful about correlational leaps. Social historians would suggest that the clear success of kids in other countries probably has much, much more to do with other aspects of the experience of those youngsters and their families than the existence of external examinations of one kind or another.

Fourth question: Do we know how to assess those qualities of mind and spirit that we most value well enough to build them now into a national examination system that has high stakes? I suggest no. What we all are talking about is so new, so complicated, and requires such a mindshift on the part of teachers, college-admissions officers, and parents, that it is impossible to say: A) We know how to do it well; and B) We’re likely to be able to sell it well enough to “get into place’’ a national examination system in the next 3, 4, 5, or 10 years.

It’s too soon. Even if one puts aside my other objections, it’s too early. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment report [“Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions’’] looks at the evidence very carefully and hits the brakes.

Fifth question: Why do we need national standards? Underline the word “national.’' Why do we need to calibrate? Who really cares about the difference between Florida and Oregon? Governors do, but I haven’t heard many parents say they do. How important is it to have national accountability, where you can compare states and communities? What order of priority? There are many things we want to do in life; where does that one fit? The top 10? The top 20? The top 30? For me, it’s somewhere in the top 50. Because that’s not what I’m hearing the people want, or that parents want. They’re talking about Judy or Sammy; they’re not talking about how this school in Massachusetts compares with that school in Missouri. The notion that standards are going to have importance only if they are national again involves a kind of leap I think is unnecessary. Yes, we want higher standards, but why must we start with a system that tries to do all 50 states at once? Or has set up a system that does some numbers of states at once?

Sixth question: Voluntarily for whom? Does Bill Clinton decide for Arkansas, or do the parents in Springdale High School decide? Or does the principal of Springdale High School decide? Or does the school board decide? We’ve heard a lot about a voluntary system, but not for whom it’s voluntary. It comes back to my right as a parent in a democratic system for some proper leverage over the ideas to which my kid is exposed. This is not a trivial issue.

Seventh: How can we, in any principled way, set up a high-stakes system before guaranteeing to some reasonable level the elimination of the grotesque inequities in states? Marc raised that issue very clearly and very powerfully at the end of his remarks, that this is a profoundly inequitable country; that kids are profoundly tracked. We all know of the incredible inequities, not just in finance, but in other subtler forms across families and across schools.

At what point is government, or all of us, going to say, “Here is an interesting system, but you can’t use it yet until you make that playing field, if not flat, at least kind of moderately bumpy?’' Again, people say, “Oh, yes, the equity issue. Now let’s get on with the testing system.’' That’s the wrong sequence, folks. We will once again end up proving that poor kids score not as well as rich kids.

Finally, the question I hear a lot from my friends is this: What holds good teachers in the profession? Good teachers in the schools with which I’m familiar in this and other countries are proud people, and part of their pride is that they know their kids better than anybody else. The more other folks presume to know more than they do is the extent to which they say to hell with it. And any system that undermines the likelihood of a strengthening of the teaching force is counterproductive. So if one wants to decide the standards, one had better do so with great humility and restraint with respect to the effect of that on teachers.

These to me are very important questions I feel very strongly about, even as I profoundly agree with the direction many of us are collectively embarked upon. The New Standards Project view of the assessment/pedagogy world is highly sophisticated, very sensible, deeply rooted in research, and the absolute right direction. But I am concerned about taking that very fragile, very powerful notion and trying to hook it into something of an essentially political nature.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as By All Measures: 8 Questions: On Cost, Impact, The Politics of Who Chooses


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