Program To Offer Courses, Exams For High Schools

By Robert Rothman — May 06, 1992 6 min read

The College Board last week unveiled a program to create courses and examinations for high-school students that board officials say will complement other moves toward national standards and assessments.

Modeled after the board’s Advanced Placement program, which is aimed at the most able students, the new effort, known as Pacesetter, will include syllabi, professional- development activities, and assessments for “capstone” high-school courses that schools can offer for all students.

The first offerings, in mathematics, will be piloted in six sites in 1993-94; courses in English, science, world history, and Spanish will be piloted the following year.

IT the program is successful, Donald M. Stewart, the president of the College Board, asserted at a press conference here last week, it will improve all levels of schooling by bringing together educators to “raise the expectations and achievements of all secondary- school students.”

“By reflecting a consensus of educators on what all students should know in certain subjects before they graduate from secondary school,” he said, “Pacesetter will allow participating schools and districts to raise the expectations of all students, to confront the seemingly disparate issues of equity and standards, and to prepare students for productive lives after high school--on the job or in college”

Mr. Stewart noted that the College Board had enlisted the major subject-matter organizations to help develop the coursework.

But while the project is national in scope, it will also fit state and local reform efforts, according to Betty Castor, Florida’s commissioner of education and the co-chairman of Pacesetter’s national advisory commission on integrated standards, teaching, and assessment.

Both backers and critics of national- testing proposals praised the program for its focus on curriculum and instruction, as well as on assessments, and for involving teachers in the development of materials.

But some educators said they feared the program would be costly, like the Advanced Placement system of coursework and tests, and that the cost of the examinations might be borne by students.

And Theodore R Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, cautioned that Pacesetter might perpetuate the disciplinary boundaries that divide students’ attention in most high schools.

“The study of Spanish independent from the study of English is confusing for kids,” Mr. Sizer said.

A Program, Not a Test

The initiative by the College Board-a New York City-based association of some 3,000 secondary schools and colleges that sponsors the Scholastic Aptitude Test-is the latest development in the high-profile and controversial movement toward national standards for student learning and a related system of assessments.

Francie M. Alexander, who was the executive director of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, which issued a report in January recommending such a system, said the project is consistent with that panel’s aims.

“The council hoped for entrepreneurs who would develop new assessments consistent with evolving national standards,” said Ms. Alexander, who is now the deputy assistant U.S. secretary of education for policy and planning.

Unlike some other such proposals, Mr. Stewart noted, Pacesetter includes more than just a test. “Pacesetter is not a test,” he said. “It’s an education program.” In particular, he said, each course will include:

  • An outline of course content and learning outcomes, developed by teachers and curriculum specialists;
  • Teacher-training and -support activities tied to the course outline, including in-school assessment techniques, summer workshops, institutes, and publications;
  • Classroom assessments to enable teachers to monitor student progress; and
  • End-of-course examinations that will include a range of testing formats, including multiple-choice and opened questions and portfolios.

“If we can get beyond [course requirements] to course content and assessment, related to curriculum and staff development,” said Commissioner Castor, “we will be taking a major step toward school improvement and high standards.”

Driving Curricular Reform

To flesh out the program, the board has formed task forces of teachers and curriculum specialists to develop the coursework, professional- development activities, and assessments.

The board has also contracted with the Educational Testing Service, which administers the S.A.T., to develop the end-of-course exams.

The task forces are also linked with leading subject-matter groups to ensure that their work is consistent with the national standards that are being developed in each subject.

The math task force, said Jo Ann Lutz, the head of the math department at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, plans to translate the curriculum standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics into a 12th grade course for all students.

Such a course, she said, would develop students’ abilities to confront unexpected problems, to write and communicate about math, and to use technology to solve problems. “The course we develop will be quite different from the present curriculum,” Ms. Lutz said.

She also predicted that the Pacesetter course will help drive curriculum reform throughout schools, since students will need early preparation for the course.

“This will assume students will arrive at the course with three years of real math behind them, " she said.

Such efforts would help many students who are currently locked out of challenging curricula, argued W. Ann Reynolds, the chancellor of the City University of New York and the other co-chairman of the program’s advisory commission.

“We’ve got to provide real educational opportunity for all people,” she said. “I believe Pacesetter will contribute to that ideal.”

‘Full Partners’

In addition to spurring curricular reform, the project will enhance teachers’ professional development by involving them in every stage of the process, Claire L. Pelton, the director of educational services for the San Jose (Calif.) Unified School District, suggested.

“This makes educators full partners in defining, delivering, and assessing achievement,” she said.

Teachers will also benefit by participating in scoring the assessments, as teachers do in the Advanced Placement program, Ms. Pelton said.

“The best in-service [training] I ever had came from those readings,” she said. “When teachers get together to look at actual student writing, they talk about the standards involved.”

But Monty Neill, the associate director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, said that only a relatively few teachers will benefit from the program. For most, he said, the course and assessment will be imposed on them.

A Question of Cost

Mr. Stewart of the College Board said the first Pacesetter course will be pilot-tested in 1993-94 in Prince George’s County, Md., San Diego, and four other sites chosen from among Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Fort Worth; Milwaukee; Nashville; Providence, R.I.; and Sacramento and San Jose, Calif. The board is also working with the Southern Regional Education Board to identify additional pilot sites in that region.

Robert E. Stoltz, the vice president for policy of the S.R.E.B., said there is a “good bit of interest” in the concept. “It really needs to be tried: he said.

He cautioned, however, that some schools may be deterred by the cost of the program, which has yet to be determined.

But Ms. Alexander, the Education Department official, observed that the cost of the program includes curriculum and professional development, as well as an assessment, and that the benefits might outweigh the additional costs.

“The experience with the A.P. and the California Golden State Examinations shows that these kinds of tests are meaningful, cost-effective approaches,” Ms. Alexander said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 1992 edition of Education Week as Program To Offer Courses, Exams For High Schools