Standards: Missing From the Debate

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At the request of Education Week, the Widmeyer Group conducted a focus group of seniors from an urban New Jersey high school to determine how students feel about national standards. All but one of the 11 students were in "alpha," or honors, classes. Half the honors students had not started in honors classes as freshmen. Below is a summary of their remarks. We have given the students fictitious names to preserve their anonymity.

In the course of deciding what students should know and be able to do in various subjects, the national standards-setters apparently neglected to consult one group: the students who one day would have to meet the standards. None of the high achievers in our focus group had heard of the standards documents or seen copies of them.

But national standards could help students like these avoid a basic problem they identified in their schooling: Although they are almost finished with high school, they still don't know why some of the material they are learning is worthwhile.

"They tell you what to do, but they don't tell you what you're doing it for," Jamal said of his teachers. "Our society has this attitude, you know, 'Well, you're telling me this, but you're not my mother, and I don't have to do that. If you want me to do this, you give me a reason why I should do this.' I think we are entitled to know why we are doing what the teacher tells us to do."

If students know the implications of what they are studying, they may work harder, the group said.

"Students feel like, well, if it's not important, why should I do it? Why should I make an effort?" Ruth said. "If they tell you it's important, it's like, 'Oh, this is going to determine what I'm going to do for the rest of the years, so I have to do good.'"

If the students are confused about why they're being taught certain things, they are no clearer about their career plans. By this time in their schooling, these seniors said, they thought they would have chosen careers, but many of them still don't know what they want to do. Some have decided on a career but don't know how to pursue it.

Special Treatment

The students see wide disparities in the treatment accorded honors and regular-track students. Honors students, they said, are given more encouragement and are held to higher expectations than other students. In high school, Crystal said, "it's like, if you're at the top, you're peaches and cream. But if you're at the bottom, it's almost like them telling you, 'If you're not at the top, you're not going to make it.'"

Teachers in regular classes just want their students to graduate, they said, while honors students are expected to graduate with A's and have a career.

"If you're not at the level of an alpha student or an honors student, the teachers that do teach the lower levels don't tend to take much interest," Crystal said. "There are students out there in the regular low-group classes who have a harder time learning, so the teachers figure they shouldn't have to teach obedience. It's a disadvantage for people who are in lower levels because they don't get that extra help."

Students who are not in honors classes also may lose out because they rely on instructors who may or may not teach them the crucial material.

"It's like, once a teacher is given an assignment to do, she'll base it upon that," Everett said. "And if she sees something that she won't have the time to teach, or she sees that they're taking too long to learn it, she'll just scratch one of them off. And what about if what she skips is in the test?"

"It's like the teachers base their teaching on what they think the students will comprehend instead of giving them the full extent of what they're supposed to," Jamal said. "So when it comes time for the test and they fail it, they have a reason to fail it only because they've never learned what they're supposed to."

Indeed, tests are of grave concern to these students, especially the state's High School Proficiency Test, which students must pass in 11th grade to graduate. The test, which measures achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics, was instituted in 1990 but did not count toward graduation until October 1993. The students complained that they had little time to learn the material being tested during that phase-in period.

"The majority of people that passed the first time were all alpha students," Crystal said. "And it's not because the people didn't attempt to take the test seriously. It's because they weren't even taught. You can't expect a group of people to pass a test if the information isn't given to them."

Tests are unfair, Linda said, because schools "base everything on the exams, and it's not good because some people are smart, and they do good in school, and then when it comes to a test, they fail it."

Shifting Standards

The students agreed that standards differ from school to school and from district to district within the state. Many students, they said, do not know what the standards are in their own school.

"It really has to do with the school system because not all the systems are the same," Joanie said. "You have different school systems, so everybody learns different things."

For that reason, the students support the implementation of national standards because they will insure that each student will have to meet the same objectives. However, they cautioned, regular-track students confronted with the more demanding material called for in the standards will need to be taught at their own level.

"Instead of giving them basic math, give them algebra, but have a teacher to teach them on their level," Crystal said. "So when they do get these tests, they understand what's going on."

Students would work harder to achieve the standards since "these are the people we have to compete against for jobs," Ruth said.

But what happens once students with the equivalent education descend on the job market? "What I'm hearing is equality, right?" Linda asked. "But what if her and me have everything the same and we go for a job, who will get it?"

The students could not answer that question, but they agreed that national standards would raise students' self-esteem.

"I think that people have to learn instead of saying, 'Oh, you're going to just pass.' You need to get above that. Say they're going to pass plus do more," Regina said. "They set such low, low standards that they keep going lower instead of going higher."

"A lot of times they treat the kids in the school like they have a disability. Like there's something the matter with them," Linda said. "They've got to teach these kids that they're smart and bright and that they can do the work."

Students achieve more when their parents are interested in their work, the students agreed, but teachers also play a large role in encouraging them.

"If you set good standards, and you have people behind the students, just to let them know there is a way to succeed, [that] it just takes a little effort, then it would get better," Jamal said.

Most of the students thought they were already working hard and getting a quality education. When they looked at samples of the standards, though, they were surprised.

"I'd try my best to get a D," Regina said. "If you gave that right now, I would be so stressed out. This can't compare to the work I get now, and I'm already stressed out."

"If they were to give me a test, like at the end of senior year, based upon what this says right here, I would fail," Everett said.

The students believe that to be effective, standards should be implemented starting in kindergarten. Most said it's too late for them now to learn all the information.

"I think this is a good curriculum, but you can't just force it upon [students] or just throw it at them," Ruth said. "But I'm glad that they finally can see that we need these things and that they're not saying, 'Well, they can't do it.' Because I think it's better to set a high goal and try to reach it than to just put it lower. I'm glad they set such high standards so we could at least try to attempt it."

Student Standards

The group also had a word of advice for the standards-setters: Look to the future.

"Standards can't be set upon what they think we should know," Everett said. "They should be set upon what we have to learn based on what we're going to do, where we're going to go, and what we really need to learn to work."

"You have to base learning on the future, on what's going to happen years from now," Jamal agreed, "not what's going on right now or not what happened back then."

"I would like to learn [these standards] because I have three brothers who are already in college, and this is what they do," Ruth said. "So I would like to know that I'll be prepared for it. I don't want to go to college not knowing anything."

Educators should not neglect student opinion because "our standards are important, too," Grant said.

"It's never our standards," Everett complained. "It never will be. If we don't meet the 125 credits and pass the [state test], we don't graduate. It's set upon their standards."

Vol. 14, Issue 29

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