Standards Council Weighs Calling for Systemic Reforms

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WASHINGTON--Amid concerns that it was exceeding its Congressional mandate, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing last week weighed whether to recommend in its forthcoming report a broad set of reforms designed to make systemic changes in the nation's schools.

The panel, established in June by the National Education Goals Panel and the Congress, had been charged with investigating the desirability and feasibility of national standards in school subjects and a national student-assessment system to gauge performance against the standards. It is expected to issue its final report by Dec. 31.

At its meeting here last week, the group unanimously endorsed the idea of national standards, and began to discuss how an assessment system might operate.

But a task force of the council, created to examine the implementation of a new system, urged the group to recommend, in addition, a set of policies that would help ensure that all students are able to meet the new standards.

Among other proposals, the panel recommended: fully funding Head Start; developing standards for health care; enacting "merit school" legislation to provide financial incentives for achievement; and providing parent-training programs.

"You simply can't do standards and assessments, without attention to these issues, and expect all kids to have a shot at achieving the standards," said David W. Hornbeck, a former state superintendent of education in Maryland and the chairman of the task force.

Several members of the council argued, however, that the recommendations went far beyond the panel's charge and failed to include specific proposals on how the standards and assessment system could be implemented.

"I don't see us as a council on education reform generally," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. "I don't think that's in our authority."

But other members argued that the council should outline a vision for the future, although perhaps one less specific than Mr. Hornbeck's task force had recommended.

Council members agreed to ask the task force to rewrite its proposal to eliminate specific recommendations while maintaining an emphasis on the need for broader reforms.

"We should make a statement of where the nation ought to be headed," said Lauren B. Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. "We're not just a nuts-and-bolts undertaking."

Mr. Hornbeck said after the meeting that he was satisfied with the outcome. "I would have been very unhappy, and would think the council had missed the point," he said, "if they had opted" to delete all references to systemic reforms.

Voluntary Standards

The meeting here last week came as the council, a 32-member panel of educators and policymakers, began to home in on recommendations that will appear in its December report.

Although the panel had already tentatively agreed that standards and assessments are desirable, members last month agreed to revisit the issues in light of concerns raised by the four members of the Congress on the council. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)

In adopting the idea of national standards, the council heard a report from one of its task forces, which concluded that establishing standards-or definitions of what schools should teach--would promote improvements in student achievement, teaching practices, and equity.

"We presently have a national curriculum, oriented to the level of basic skills," said Marshall S. Smith, the dean of the graduate school of education at Stanford University and the chairman of the task force. "We could have one oriented at a higher level."

But the council adopted a recommendation by the task force to make such standards voluntary for states and districts.

"We don't have a history or the political will to mandate standards," said Gov. Roy Remer of Colorado, co-chairman of the council. "That's not acceptable."

"What is acceptable," he continued, "is if we come up with something so good, the question will be, 'Why did you not use it?'"

'Moon-Shot Production Team'

The council's task force on assessment, meanwhile, could not make judgments on a national assessment system until the council had determined what kind of assessment it planned to create, the task force's chairman, Eva L. Baker, reported.

"Members of the technical community believe different elements of design are appropriate for different uses of an assessment system," said Ms. Baker, the co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But Governor Romer, noting that states are moving rapidly to develop their own new forms of assessment, said the councilor whatever entity it proposes to develop standards and assessments--should move quickly to create its own models to ensure that the assessments match the proposed standards.

Otherwise, he suggested, commercial publishers might produce tests that claim to adhere to the standards, when in fact they do not.

"We have to have a moon-shot production team" to develop new assessments, he said. "If we don't have them available, the Colorados of the world will go out and be captured by the free-market system."

Iris M. Carl, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said Mr. Romer's scenario has been borne out in the math field, where her organization has laid out highly regarded standards for curriculum.

"The N.C.T.M. standards are part of the sales pitch of every textbook publisher," Ms. Carl said. "The logo on the front of our document is everywhere."

"But as we look at the books," she added, "we see all kinds of levels. Some haven't changed at all, others are reaching for the standards we call for."

Ms. Carl and other members urged the creation of an independent board that could give a "Good Housekeeping seal of approval"to state'developed and commercial tests.

Broad-Based Recommendations

Mr. Hornbeck's task force on implementation argued in its draft report that standards and assessments, by themselves, are unlikely to improve schools.

Rather, the report states, "only deep and systemic changes will have the power to alter school and community behavior sufficiently to yield the broad-based, high-expectation results on the new standards the nation requires."

The report outlines recommendations in 11 areas, including curriculum and instruction, governance, school staff capacity, parental support, technology, early-childhood education, health and social services, community support, and equity.

Governor Remer said that, while he endorsed many of the task force's recommendations, he was uncertain that they belonged in the council's report.

"We've got to have ... real reform, and action to ensure that we perform at the level we'd like to perform," he said. "The question is, how far should one go to debate how to do that? The dimension of policy considerations [in the draft report] is much broader than anyone anticipated."

Such proposals, which are unlikely to be adopted immediately by the Congress, could obscure the more realistic proposals on standards and assessment that the panel is likely to recommend, added Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico.

'@t tends to water down anything we say, to say, 'Oh, by the way, here's the way to fix the problems of education,'" Senator Bingaman said.

But Governor Remer and others argued that the council should make a statement about the broader reforms needed to raise the level of achievement. But they urged that the specific recommendations be deleted.

Mr. Hornbeck agreed to make the changes, and said afterward that he did not think the revisions would blunt the message.

'@A. lot of people sitting at that table believe strongly that it would be ill-advised to push forward with standards and assessments without also dealing self-consciously with other issues," he said. "That will be pressed along pretty hard."

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Pages 1, 23

Published in Print: October 30, 1991, as Standards Council Weighs Calling for Systemic Reforms
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