Plans Readied for National Exams To Begin in 1993

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ITASCA, ILL.--A group of leading educators, business leaders, and policy makers, representing schools that educate half the nation's schoolchildren, met here last week to begin planning for a national examination system that could begin as early as 1993.

The closely watched, privately funded effort, known as the New Standards Project, was launched early this year by the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

But Lauren B. Resnick, director of the L.R.D.C., said the project really got under way last week at this Chicago suburb, when its governing board consisting of representatives from each of the 17 states and 6 city school districts that are participating in the project convened for the first time.

"In a real sense, the project begins here," she said.

The board members agreed to plan for developing the first examinations in mathematics and language arts for the 4th, and possibly the 8th grades, by the 1993-94 school year.

But while project officials had originally planned to have the full system up and running by 1997, members of the board urged them to speed up their pace.

The group also debated a draft "declaration of principles" that is expected to lay out a vision for the new system. They made clear, however, that the effort is intended not just to create a testing program, but to lead to a transformation of the entire education system to enable all students to meet high standards for performance.

"We're not just doing a new assessment,'' said Marsha R. West, a member of the board of education for the Fort Worth (Tex.) Independent School District. "We're doing a whole new ball game."

'Most Promising' Work

Although several groups have proposed creating a national test or assessment system, the New Standards Project, which has received grants from the Pew Memorial Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is the only effort to commit substantial resources toward that end and to begin work toward creating such a system. (See Education Week, Oct. 23, 1991 .)

Next month, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a Congressionally mandated panel charged with investigating the feasibility and desirability of national standards and tests, is expected to issue its report recommending the development of such a system.

The co-chairman of that council, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, was also named a member of the New Standards governing beard, but he was unable to attend the meeting here because he was in Russia on a trip for the National Governors' Association.

He did, however, endorse the project in a letter released here.

"I believe the standards and assessment work that the New Standards Project is doing is the most promising in the country," Governor Romer wrote. "Other groups will gain much from the direction and momentum set here."

In contrast to some of the other national testing proposals, the New Standards Project calls for an examination system, rather than a single national test. Under the proposed system, different examinations would be judged against a single set of national standards.

The project also proposes the use of timed performance tasks, long term projects, and portfolios, rather than conventional multiple-choice tests. Ms. Resnick said that portfolios, which represent student work over a period of time, should be "at the heart" of the system.

The use of portfolios, she said, would provide "incredible educational power," and would permit students to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of ways. In addition, she said, a group of testing experts, led by Dale C. Carlson, the director of the California Assessment Program, has concluded that portfolios would solve the technical problem of ensuring there are sufficient data to make judgments about students' performance.

At a meeting last summer in Colorado, teams of teachers and curriculum specialists from the participating states and districts developed tasks in math and English/language arts that could form the building blocks of the system. The teachers are expected to try out the tasks in their classrooms early next year. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991 .)

Together with tasks drawn from various European systems and other sources, the refined tasks are expected to make up a pilot examination, which is scheduled to be administered next spring.

'We Can't Wait'

The governing board voted here to move toward developing the first full-blown exam, in those two subjects, by 1993-94. But members said the rest of the system should be developed soon afterward.

Jack D. Foster, secretary of education and humanities cabinet in Kentucky, said many states have already moved to develop new assessment systems.

"We want to be part of it, but we can't wait on it," he said.

In other states, legislatures could step in and mandate less-acceptable assessment systems before the New Standards system is in place, added Richard P. Mills, commissioner of education in Vermont.

"If we do this right, we could preempt bad decisionmaking," he said. "But if we do it wrong, bad decisionmaking could pre-empt us." Robert Burns, deputy superintendent of education in Oregon, said the participating states, by pooling their resources, could speed up the development of new assessments.

"It doesn't make sense for states to go it alone," he said. "It makes more sense to have connections, consensus, a national approach to this."

Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said the project would not foreclose individual states or commercial testing firms from developing tests as well. But he said that an independent review beard would evaluate the exams to determine if they met the standards sot by the project.

"We're not trying to design an exclusive club," he said. "Just the opposite.''

"As long as what we build," he added, "is not the cacophony we have now.'

'Social Compact'

In discussing the project's "declaration of principles," members of the governing board agreed that its goal should be to raise the performance of students to "world-class standards."

Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction in California, said it was unlikely that the panel would be able to set a high standard that all students--including those with handicapping conditions and those with limited English proficiency could meet.

"That's not reality," he said. "That's not going to happen."

A more realistic target, he said, is for "the whole spectrum to move up."

But Ronn Robinson, an aide to Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington, said the project must express a vision that all students can attain high standards.

Otherwise, he said, "the list of exceptions gets so long so fast, the notion that all kids can learn gets obliterated."

The draft declaration also states that the participants in the project pledge to a "social compact" that would ensure that all students have a shot at reaching the new standards. The members said this would include making changes in school organization and finance, teacher education, and regulations.

"We're not going to be able to put a stamp of approval on [restructuring] efforts," said C. Diane Bishop, superintendent of education in Arizona. "But it is incumbent on us to provide the supports needed so students can meet the standards."

Shirley M. Malcom, head of the directorate for education and human-resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the examinations should not be used as a basis for rewards for students until such changes are made.

"Until we clean up our act," she said, "we cannot hold students accountable using the exam system."

But Thomas C. Boysen, commissioner of education in Kentucky, said attaching consequences to the results would help students strive to achieve the high standards.

"High stakes already exist," he said. "If they don't meet the performance, they are in for disappointment for a lifetime."

"We need to use the resources we already have," he added, "and count less on what we need."

Vol. 11, Issue 12, Pages 1, 21

Published in Print: November 20, 1991, as Plans Readied for National Exams To Begin in 1993
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