Education Opinion

Setting Standards In a Democracy: Filling the Gap

By Donald M. Stewart — February 02, 1994 9 min read
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It is a familiar argument: We have a crisis in our schools because we have no high academic standards for students. We must therefore create some standards and then insist that everyone be accountable.

It is also a false argument, and misses the real challenge for U.S. education.

We have standards, and have had them for some time. We have high voluntary standards that work well for increasing numbers of diverse students. The Advanced Placement exam is but one example of a high-quality performance-based assessment, one that promotes authentic learning, provides substantial teacher development, and maintains test validity, reliability, and comparability. Further, there is a great deal of research under way across the United States to refine these assessments, and to create new ones that take advantage of recent advances in cognitive psychology and computer-adaptive-testing technology.

But if we have a variety of high academic standards that continue to evolve, what is the current national standards debate really about? In fact, the debate addresses two related questions. First, how do we make high standards stick for all students? And second, what is the process by which we should be setting standards in a democratic republic? I maintain that our answer to the second will determine whether or not we are able to accomplish the first.

We must consciously and explicitly discuss the process by which we set our academic standards at least as much as we discuss exactly what those standards should be. There is no other way to insure that those standards will end up serving the diverse range of citizens in this republic. And the world in which we set those standards has changed dramatically in the last few decades, forcing us to re-examine how we will determine what our fellow citizens will need to know and be able to do.

Changes in the configuration of forces affecting this standards-setting process over the last few decades have created a gap, an absence of a framework in which collaborative standards-setting can occur among the various players in education. We need, therefore, to reinvig-orate independent, consensus-generating processes by which standards can be set. Equally important, these consensus-generating processes must include all education professionals--teachers, administrators, counselors, financial-aid officers, and admissions-staff members--so that all educators can come to believe in those same standards. Without such belief, these standards may never even be sought for all our students. Perhaps a brief examination of the historic shift in standards-setting forces may help to clarify our present need for a reinvigorated standards-setting framework, noting in particular how changes in higher education have affected its role in the standards-setting process.

In the history of American education, the growth of new types of schooling has often forced educators to address new problems of articulation. Indeed, the original College Board grew out of such a gap, formed in order to better coordinate the transition from high school to college. The first written college-entrance exams, developed and graded by teachers and professors, reflected this early and at the time rare cross-sector collaboration that was taking place. The S.A.T. later developed out of jointly held concerns about establishing a uniform admissions standard, one that would protect academic freedom as well as provide greater educational access to students from distant or unknown schools.

By the mid-20th century, as more students graduated from high school and more entered college, the colleges exercised considerable influence over the standards of the secondary academic curriculum and indeed the entire admissions process. As some colleges quickly became highly selective following World War II, they could significantly shape the academic high school curriculum by setting their expectations of applicants, at least for the influential college-bound tracks (and unfortunately, inflexible “tracks” they have often been).

As the postsecondary sector expanded rapidly, however, it also changed significantly, and its ties to the secondary sector became more complicated. New institutions, such as the community college, grew quickly and continue to teach an increasing percentage of postsecondary students. The research university developed into what Clark Kerr has called the “multiversity,’' offering a dizzying array of loosely connected worlds seeming at times to be only nominally within the same institution. Flattened enrollments pressured many admissions offices into more aggressive recruitment positions. As a result of amendments to the federal Higher Education Act in 1972, students began to carry their financial aid with them, challenging much of higher education’s ability to set and enforce admissions standards. More recently, adult students began entering higher education in greater numbers, not directly from their high school experiences.

What then has happened to the postsecondary sector’s ability to influence the secondary schools and the transition process? If higher education for which secondary schooling is meant to prepare is an increasingly varied and market-driven enterprise, how likely is higher education to shape the institutions that feed into it? Who or what in the complex web of standards-setting forces will fill in for higher education as its role continues to change?

Thus a gap forms, a space caused by the shifting matrix of institutions. Obviously, higher education never existed alone, nor exercised some type of monopolistic control; equally obvious is the considerable and valuable influence colleges still have over standards of curriculum, and the processes of admissions and student aid.

What is also certain is that today’s standards-reform movement is being shaped by a wide variety of forces, emanating from public, private, local, state, and national organizations. Long gone--if it ever existed--are the days when a single sector, a single entity could dictate what school standards must be. Too much institutional and programmatic diversity exists in higher education and too many varied actors are shaping precollegiate schooling for standards to drop down from a sacred mount, etched in stone tablets. What our current efforts at standards-setting do call for is some independent convener, some mechanism for bringing all the varied forces of change together. The gap, the vacuum that has formed is one of framework, a framework in which collaboration can be forged and consensus generated.

In the context of this gap, the federal role is also changing and cannot be ignored. The current federal promotion of world-class standards reflects a truly courageous commitment to systemic change. I support fully the Clinton Administration’s dedication to promoting high standards for all of our students. However, we must be careful that some not seize that enthusiasm and redirect it into a very new purpose--government control under the guise of federal certification of specific discipline-content standards and their assessment.

The College Board’s extensive hands-on experience with standards-setting over the last 93 years tells us that the process must generate consensus and voluntary collaboration across sectors, across levels, across disciplines. We must concentrate on consensus-building because what we must change are minds and practices, not just curriculum guides or tests on a district-office shelf.

Nor can we afford what Iris Rotberg, writing in these pages, has called the “Field of Dreams” mentality: Just build a test, and they will learn (Commentary, Sept. 29, 1993). That only happens in movies. We cannot afford to simply change a test or create a list of standards and let the chips fall where they may. Democratic standards-setting must keep equity central. We cannot develop a list of new standards for all students and then ignore the savage inequalities in the opportunities students have to learn.

We learn again each day that how we set high standards determines whether or not they will effectively be the standards for all students. At the College Board, we are learning this daily through an undertaking called EQUITY 2000, a comprehensive, multi-million-dollar, foundation-supported partnership with six urban school sites across the nation that affects some 450,000 students. Based on research into college success, we know that students who take and pass algebra and geometry in high school and are so motivated are much more likely to succeed in college, a finding that holds across gender, ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic lines. And so we decided to push systemic reform by pushing all 9th graders into algebra and all 10th graders into geometry in Fort Worth; Milwaukee; Nashville; Prince George’s County, Md.; Providence, R.I.; and San Jose, Calif.--our EQUITY 2000 partners.

We have learned, as have others in standards-setting reform, that efforts like EQUITY 2000 must build a comprehensive and consensus-generating framework in order to truly promote systemic reform. It must be comprehensive because really promoting high standards for all students means meeting teacher requests for retraining and new resources. It must be consensus-generating because high standards for all means changing teachers’ and counselors’ attitudes as to which students will succeed, and assisting them to better advise more students and parents about the transition to college. It means involving financial-aid professionals so that academic performance and promise are not left stranded without funds. It means collaborating with admissions officers at receiving universities so that their expectations reinforce the same culture of academic excellence the teachers, counselors, and parents have struggled to build. It can work and is working--changing real communities, real schools, and real lives.

Obviously such a standards-setting process cannot merely be mandated. Nor will it happen by some invisible hand. Such a process will depend on the rich and innovative interplay of deliberately independent organizations and institutions, along with the increasingly important role of states in the K-12 standards-setting and assessment process. We must consciously build frameworks for broad voluntary collaboration, both among and within our institutions. We, for example, have recently expanded the framework through which our member institutions can participate and reach consensus on issues. While by no means a perfect framework, it represents, we feel, the direction that standards-setting processes in our democracy need to take, combining what the University of Virginia’s president, John Casteen, calls our “profound idealism’’ with a “powerful pragmatism.”

One area where we cannot afford to skimp on standards is in the processes by which we set them. We will only make high standards stick for all students if those standards grow out of independent, cross-sector, consensus-generating frameworks, through which all educational professionals can collaborate. In order to create such a framework, we must first revitalize the public discourse about how we should set standards in our democracy. Only then might we truly succeed in making equity and excellence central in all our nation’s classrooms and educational practices.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as Setting Standards In a Democracy: Filling the Gap


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