Forum on Goals Suggests Educators Are Troubled by National Standards

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Denver--Many of their colleagues do not know much about the national education goals adopted last year by President Bush and the National Governors' Association, several educators said in interviews at a public forum conducted by the National Education Goals Panel here.

But what they do know about the goals process--and particularly its emphasis on national standards--scares them.

"I understand that the business leaders and the politicians are anxious about the outcomes of our students, and they are looking for someone to blame," said Al Wilder, a literature teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

The problem, he said, is that "I feel we will be victimized. The individual student will be blamed. The underachiever's family will be shamed."

"If the purpose of the report card were not to judge, but to allocate resources, that would be all right," he said. "But that's not the agenda. This isn't offering [underachievers] any real alternatives."

The monitoring panel has scheduled seven additional hearings around the country to gather reaction to the recommendations it received from expert groups on how to measure progress toward the goals.

The panel is charged with selecting measurements to include in its first "report card" this September, and also with recommending the creation of new assessments for future use. Panel members have discussed measures that would allow comparisons between states or even between schools. (See Education Week, April 3, 1991.)

Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, the panel's chairman, indicated that he is aware of the potential influence of such a national assessment.

"The questions we ask are going to send massive signals throughout this country," Mr. Romer said at a banquet the night before the April 12 forum. "Those questions are going to be powerful drivers of public policy."

"We must think not only about what data we should collect, but how we can leverage that data into institutional change," he said at the forum, suggesting, for example, that employers be encouraged to demand academic transcripts from job applicants.

Many educators are worried, however, about the possibility that the results of standardized tests could wield increasingly significant power over what is taught in the nation's schools.

An overwhelming majority of the speakers at the forum--both invited presenters and those who attended on their own initiative--voiced such concerns.

Many fear that high-profile tests would inevitably lead to an emphasis on the material they cover and on test-taking skills and that the new emphases would come at the expense of the rest of the curriculum.

Representatives of Denver's arts community expressed fear, for example, that, because it was not included in the goals document as a subject for assessment, arts education would suffer in local budgets.

"Please think carefully about what is imposed, what you send down to the districts," said JoAnn Fujioka, a special-education supervisor. "We need to look at the needs of kids. For that to be squelched by the need for teachers to do something that is imposed on them would be tragic."

Jim Fanning, a school principal and curriculum director in Dubois, Wyo., who had been invited to speak, advocated the use of "authentic tests for higher-order thinking," such as "having students design and develop a real product people can see--a paper, a play, an exhibit."

Many witnesses and educators interviewed in the audience also expressed concern that a national testing system would increase the use of tests as a "sorting tool" that would label some children as failures and consign them to low-level coursework.

"Assessment that could lead to sorting is lurking here, and it is worrisome," said Lorrie Shepard of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of Colorado.

Victor Herbert, superintendent of the Phoenix public schools, agreed, adding, "It is important that we not provide grist for the mill of those who believe minority adolescents are a lost generation and an investment with a low probability of return."

Mr. Romer questioned, however, whether it is "more cruel to tell a child, 'Here's where you are, and you are on a failure track,' or to let society tell him after he's beyond rehabilitation?"

"We all know [tests] can be misused," he added in an interview. "We don't want to make it such high stakes that it's going to distort the system."

Ensuring Accountability

A handful of non-educators who attended the meeting as interested parents endorsed expanded testing as an accountability measure.

Sally Sweet, a former teacher from Boulder, Colo., said state-mandated testing would "force localities into some standards."

Of educators who express concern that such a system would encourage unwarranted student tracking, Ms. Sweet said: "I don't think it's their true concern. Accountability is simply threatening to them."

Tom Annes of Denver spoke angrily as he told the monitoring panel about his daughter, who was shocked to receive very low scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test after having earned good grades at a local parochial school. After examining the situation, Mr. Annes said, he found that the school was not accredited and that its teachers were "underpaid."

His daughter "is now struggling with a 2.1 grade-point average at the University of Colorado," he said.

"What we need is some way of being able to evaluate schools so we can make a selection," said Mr. Annes, advocating that data on the performance of students from particular high schools--information that is well known to college admissions officers--be made public.

At least one teacher who attended the hearing is not threatened by the prospect of national standards.

"I really do like the idea of a common framework," said Cindy Chapman, an elementary-school teacher from Albuquerque who is vice president of the New Mexico Federation of Teachers.

"I don't mind being told, 'This is what we would like our kids to do,"' she said. "What's dangerous would be if we were told exactly how we had to do it."

Ms. Chapman acknowledged that, as a union official, she is particularly aware of national events, and said that her school principal made a point of discussing the education goals with his staff.

But she may have been the exception at the forum. Every other educator interviewed at the meeting said there is little awareness of the goals in their schools.

"Right now, the field doesn't know a whole lot about the goals," said Diane Proctor, coordinator of program evaluation and testing for the Jefferson County, Colo., schools. "Only a handful in my district know about it. It's certainly not part of their life."

Several educators said resentment on the part of teachers who are aware of the goals stems at least in part from a feeling that they are being "imposed from above" with little input from educators.

"I think we need more involvement of school people," Ms. Proctor told the goals panel. "You need to recognize that schools are real places with real students and real teachers. In schools, national assessment is viewed as an invasive process."

"If this is going to work," she added later, "there's got to be something in it for us, not just politicians who want media exposure. There's got to be something a teacher can use to help kids."

Noted Cherie Lyons, a consultant who prepares grant applications for the Jefferson County schools: "There's a major power issue that underlies this."

Gov. Mike Sullivan of Wyoming--the only governor to bring a teacher with him to last year's education summit in Charlottesville, Va.--also testified that more educators and parents should be directly involved. When he asked how many were present, 13 teachers and 4 parents raised their hands.

"My concern as a governor is that we not go through this venture without involving these people," he said.

The Administration and many governors have opposed suggestions by some members of the Congress that the monitoring panel--which consists of Administration officials, governors, and nonvoting Congressional members--include educators.

But Mr. Romer noted that teachers were included in some of the panel's resource groups, and he promised that teachers would be included in discussions of national standards. He pointed to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' recent efforts to form a national consensus on changes needed in math curricula as an example of an approach worth pursuing.

"If you are concerned that we're not going to have teachers in the loop," Mr. Romer said, "I'd say teachers are going to be dominant."

Some speakers complained that the assessments being discussed by the goals panel focus too much on outcomes and too little on the resources and programs needed to improve achievement.

"Either the resource group has too narrowly defined its charge or its charge was too narrow," said Ron Lally, director of the Center for Child and Family Studies in Sausalito, Calif., commenting specifically on recommendations for measuring progress toward the first goal, which deals with school readiness.

"It's balanced too heavily toward child functioning and not enough toward measuring the efforts of institutions that serve children," he said.

Dan Morris, president of the Colorado Education Association, added: ''The panel's emphasis on results without any discussion of what produces those results could leave the American public merely frustrated. Your recommendations in this area are a statistician's delight, but I don't see how they would help me or my students."

In response to such comments, Mr. Romer acknowledged that many of the speakers had "tapped into some of the ongoing debate in this panel.'' The Governor has been battling Administration officials and some Republican governors over assessment of resource deployment, and particularly of the federal government's efforts. (See Education Week, April 10, 1991.)

"Some governors will say our purpose is to measure outcomes," Mr. Romer said, "but I don't believe [resource measurement] is off the table at all."

In answer to another speaker, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander gave a somewhat different answer.

"By saying the governors want to focus on results," he said, "doesn't mean we're not interested in what money and other resources it takes to get there."

"You don't measure the results of a race by the amount of exercise the participants got, but by who gets there first," Mr. Alexander said, adding that participants can study the results and their cause in an effort to improve.

"Hopefully, [the assessments] would lead people to look at what they need to do to get there," he said.

The goals panel has scheduled additional public meetings April 22 in Greenville, S.C.; April 25 in Columbus, Ohio; April 30 in Des Moines, Iowa; May 2 in Portland, Maine; May 3 in Annapolis, Md.; May 8 in Seattle, and May 17 in Little Rock, Ark.

Written comments will be accepted until May 15.

Vol. 10, Issue 31, Page 1, 23

Published in Print: April 24, 1991, as Forum on Goals Suggests Educators Are Troubled by National Standards
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