On the Disappearance of Standards

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Tack up some posters. Print it on the side of milk cartons. Put out an all-points bulletin. Educational standards have turned up missing. Despite all the clamor about standards lately, the truth is that they're gone, a relic of an earlier era, an anachronism.

It's like the treasured piece of great-grandmother's jewelry--always kept tucked away in the dresser--that is stolen. Because it is never worn frequently, it could be months, years, before anyone notices that it's gone. Recently I reached deep into the educational drawer and made the terrifying discovery. They're gone!

As one would talk about a deceased family member, we still talk enough about standards, though. Perhaps we discuss them even more in their passing than we did when they were still around. "World-class standards'' are in vogue. We want "standards of excellence.'' Professional associations involved in elementary and secondary education scramble to produce "curriculum standards'' for their disciplines. A recent Commentary in these pages described the three kinds of standards in the educational vision of President Clinton's Goals 2000: "content standards,'' "performance standards,'' and "delivery standards.'' All heads nod when someone cries, "Above all, certainly, we must have high standards!''

I suspect it is their absence that has made our national heart grow fonder of standards.

Maybe I am one of the last ones to figure out the reality; that, despite all of the talk, standards are missing. I found out as a result of some work on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP, sometimes called "the nation's report card,'' is administered across the country to describe student achievement and monitor progress. In contrast to this noble mission, the test is, in actuality, quite brief, administered only every two years, completed by only a tiny fraction of American students, and has no "high stakes'' consequences for any student, school, or district. This is weird, I know, but on the NAEP, individual students don't even get a score.

Those who establish policy for NAEP--the National Assessment Governing Board--decided to change the way in which performance on the assessment is reported. The old way was, for example, to report that 43.5 percent of American students got the test question about cosines correct. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This was kind of boring.

A new proposal--to set standards that would describe achievement--was put forth. Descriptions of basic, proficient, and advanced performance were drafted. NAEP scores corresponding to these achievement standards were set. Immediately, the prattle poured forth. Special studies and reports. One such study by the National Academy of Education whined, "Those standards are too high!'' Their solution? Lower the standards? Nope. A better idea, they said, would be more studies, psychometric analysis, and multiple-method, whole-child, integrative triangulation on complex, authentic student performances. I need to look that one up.

Interestingly, the same academy that thinks the current standards are too high was opposed to the minimum-competency-testing push of the 1970's. Then, they said, standards were too low. It's doubtful that anyone will ever find the porridge to be just right. And it's not just NAEP. In my home state--as in many others--we've decided to raise standards so high for 12th graders that we're going to make them pass a 9th-grade test in order to get a diploma. (Am I the only one embarrassed by that logic?) Over four years, students will get about a dozen tries.

The clamor in Ohio is that the 9th-grade standard is also too high for a graduation requirement. Estimates are that as many as 40 percent of some districts' students won't get a diploma. There may well be a moratorium on implementing this standard as well.

Why? Why are standards missing? Part of the answer lies in the educational ethos of the past decades. Important personal goals like enhancing self-esteem and recognizing individual worth have become ultimate educational goals. In junior high, educational professionals made everyone in my science class hang placards around our necks that proclaimed, "I am lovable and capable!'' That didn't make me feel good; I still didn't know any science.

In simple terms, the ethos means that we should accentuate the positive. Conversely, it would be a bad thing to judge that a student is "not competent,'' to deny a diploma, or--worst of all--to state that a student has failed. Ouch! I feel malevolent just typing the word "fail.''

Unfortunately, applying any standard must result in some students meeting the standard and others falling short. Understandably, we don't want anyone to fall short, to fail (ouch!). Hence the predicament: How can we have standards and do violence to no one?

One answer is to set standards that almost everyone can meet. Of course, it would be importune to actually say that is what we are doing, so we find ways to cloud the issue. One way to do so is to invoke "psychometrics.'' The infamous teacher-competency-testing cases from the 1970's and 1980's provide one illustration. Thousands of teachers failed (ouch!) when a high standard of performance was established. Thousands still failed when a lower standard was set. Finally, psychometrically, the standard was "adjusted statistically with reference to measurement-error variance.'' Everyone passed. I witnessed another illustration waiting to take the test at the state driver's-license bureau. I don't think the test is that hard. It has questions like "What should you do at a stop sign?'' The person in line before me failed the multiple-choice test three times. The bureau clerk asked, "Would you like to try the true/false version?'' On a national scale, when we have a collective angst that public school students aren't measuring up, we re-analyze the data. Ah! A psychometrician assures us that it--educational failure--is "the big lie.'' Mental measurement to the rescue! More self-esteem salvaged.

In addition to the trendy educational emphasis that might eventually pass away, it is likely that deeper, cultural forces are at work. I think it must be part of our shared morality that makes us want to eschew standards and the difficult, often harsh pronouncements that must be made when standards are applied. The lessons we learned in our families, schools, and places of worship were that we should walk a mile in another's moccasins and take the speck out of our own eye before we cast the first stone, lest we be judged. The American mantra is that "all men are created equal.'' We grow up knowing that, but for the grace of God, we would have failed calculus too.

These lessons we have translated into educational policy. We know that we are all feeble. Incorporating human frailties necessarily lowers the standard. But this is policy. Because we are all feeble, standards that allow for our shortcomings must reach ever lower and lower until they become meaningless or missing altogether. Promulgating standards now concerns more the task of specifying how little is tolerable than what aspirations are worthy.

Even psychologically we have retreated. I saw a letter sent to a physician who had just failed (ouch!) the board examination. The letter began: "We regret to inform you that you did not pass the ... We appreciate your effort and wish you success in ...'' The letter was more like an apology. I wonder why it wasn't phrased more like: "We're pleased as punch that you won't be doing surgery on any of us ... You really should have spent less time volunteering for Physicians Against Coastline Erosion and learned a lot more anatomy.''

So what if our standards are missing? Can't we all just get along fine without them? No. There are at least two reasons. First, on an individual level, the absence of high standards--the failure to specify and recognize failure--diminishes the attractiveness of pursuing success. To every ying there must be a yang. Current educational emphasis on insulating students from the psychological, social, and personal pain of failure, though compassionate, is misguided. Ironically, the failure to encourage high aspirations and demand correspondingly high accomplishment engenders the right conclusion that whatever is accomplished is better than nothing and worthy of reward.

Second, the absence of real, meaningful standards has societal implications. Barbara Lerner has suggested that "shared standards are like mortar, holding the multicolored mosaics of civilizations together.'' I don't mean to imply that the absence of achievement levels for a test like NAEP will result in social chaos, but I wonder what it will mean to our nation when we realize that standards are missing. People will probably never riot in the streets to demand higher S.A.T. scores for entering college students, but would it be a bad thing if they did?

Indeed, we must find the missing standards. Deriving standards with reference to the lowest common denominator of our frailties only expresses our collective compassion. However, this expression must be coupled with concurrent encouragement of high personal aspirations, with real standards, which unapologetically codify what we, as a society, judge to be difficult but worthwhile, even necessary, to attain.

Defining those achievement levels--those high standards--may mean that few, some, many, or even most may fail (ouch!). If a large number of students do not achieve the level of expectation embodied in educational-performance standards, then that unfortunate result may not be so much a matter of unrealistic expectations as unrealized potential, for whatever reason. Ultimately, addressing the latter possibility will yield a greater, broader educational good. Conjuring the will to find, state, and defend the missing standards is the difficult task facing education policymakers today.

Vol. 13, Issue 10

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