Reaching what officials call a critical stage in its development, the New Standards Project--a privately funded effort to develop what could become a national examination system--has asked states to contribute financially to allow it to continue operating and eventually to expand.
“This is a make-or-break year for the project,’' said William L. Lepley, the state director of education in Iowa and the chairman of the project’s governing board.
The project plans to conduct a pilot examination next spring in 4th and 8th grade in mathematics and English-language arts and to administer a full-scale examination in the next school year.
Mr. Lepley noted, however, that the plans depend on the contributions of participating states, which may be difficult to obtain at a time when most states are facing a financial crunch. Although the fees are relatively modest--they range from $50,000 to $175,000, depending on a state’s population--states may not be able to afford the additional expenditures, Mr. Lepley acknowledged.
But he and others predicted that many states will agree that the expense is worth it. By providing an assessment system that consists of demanding performance tasks, which could allow states to compare students’ performance with those in other states and other nations, the project offers an appealing, cost-effective package, Mr. Lepley argued.
“This will give us something we can’t get anywhere else,’' he said.
As additional evidence of support for the project, Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and the co-director of the project, said that, in addition to the states that have been involved in the project so far, a number of others have applied for admission. These states, too, will be asked to pay to take part, at slightly higher rates than those for current participants.
Moving Toward Implementation
Launched last year with grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Standards Project has moved quickly toward implementation as national leaders and members of Congress continue to debate the idea of creating a national assessment system.
In its first major step, the project in August 1991 convened more than 400 teachers and curriculum specialists, who created assessment tasks that could be used as the building blocks for the new examination system.
After some revisions, the tasks were tried out in classrooms during the 1991-92 school year. In May, nearly 10,000 4th graders in 18 states and six school districts took part in the first pilot exam.
The project convened a larger group of teachers and experts this summer in Phoenix to review the scoring of the exam and to develop a new set of performance tasks. The tasks are expected to be tried out in classrooms this school year and administered in a pilot exam to 4th and 8th graders next spring.
The participants are planning to administer a full-blown examination in the 1993-94 school year, and are developing an exam in science.
These activities are funded, in part, by $8.5 million in grants awarded last summer by the Pew and MacArthur foundations. But such grants will cover less than a third of the project’s $31.8 million budget over the next three years, according to Mr. Tucker.
About a third of the financing is expected to come from additional sources, which Mr. Tucker declined to identify. To make up the rest, the project’s governing board in October agreed to devise a fee structure to charge states for participating. Under the plan, states would pay, depending on population, between $50,000 and $175,000 in the first year and between $100,000 and $500,000 in subsequent years.
“These are not huge sums,’' Mr. Tucker said. “But if a state can’t pay the fee, it will not be a member.’'
Mr. Lepley observed that, in addition to raising funds, the fee system will provide states with “ownership’’ of the project.
“This will make the New Standards Project more accountable to participating states,’' he said. “I think that’s healthy.’'
Stepping Up to Bat
Several states--including California, which has been feeling a severe fiscal squeeze--have already indicated that they plan to make the contribution.
“We’re the first ones to step up to bat and say, ‘Yes,’ '' said Dale C. Carlson, the director of the California Assessment Program. The state is using funds from the ãáð to pay its fee to the project, he said.
Mr. Carlson said the project represents “a very good investment in the future.’' He noted that it is consistent with the direction the state’s assessment program is moving.
He predicted that, over the next few years, the state assessment program will incorporate elements from the national project.
“It will definitely be merged down the line,’' Mr. Carlson said.
Richard P. Mills, the commissioner of education in Vermont, said that officials in his state consider the New Standards Project a cost-effective way of developing assessment tasks that match the state’s program.
“It would be prohibitively expensive for us to develop a full array of assessments entirely on our own,’' Mr. Mills said. “This allows us to work with people from around the country who are of like mind.’'
Mr. Lepley added that, in Iowa, which has no statewide assessment program, the project offers an opportunity to see how the state’s students compare with those of other states and other nations. The New Standards Project is surveying performance standards of other countries in an effort to provide “international benchmarks.’'
‘Adaptable to Whole Country’
Mr. Tucker noted that any additional states that seek to join the project will be asked to pay higher fees than those for current participants.
“If we didn’t do that,’' he explained, “it would pay a state to wait until all the products were ready.’'
In addition, he said, new states will have to accept all the rules that project participants have adopted for themselves. These include certifying that students have an opportunity to learn the material the examinations measure, certifying levels of competency for teachers trained in the system, and participating in an auditing system.
Although the project is voluntary, it could eventually become a national system of assessments, Mr. Tucker observed.
When Congress reconvenes next month, it is expected to revisit the issue of establishing a national body to oversee the development of such a system, which President-elect Bill Clinton favors.
“The technology of the system is perfectly adaptable to the whole nation,’' Mr. Tucker said. “Whether the country chooses to go that way is a political decision.’'
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as States Asked To Pay To Be Part of Assessment Project