By AFT's Standards, Only 15 States Deserve Passing Grade

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Only 15 states deserve passing grades for their efforts to set academic standards, based on criteria the American Federation of Teachers uses in a report that was scheduled for release this week.

But the teachers' union mainly examines how specific a state's standards are and skirts the question many educators believe should be at the heart of the endeavor: How intellectually challenging are the guidelines that describe what students should know and be able to do?

As a result, states that have been lauded widely for their student achievement may get the same grade in the report as states that usually fall near the bottom in rankings on national assessments.

Though national experts on standards-based reform said they found the AFT's approach lacking in some respects, they praised the union for taking on the task. The 900,000-member union, they noted, is the only group that has been willing to take a stab at judging each state's standards for precollegiate learning and announcing the results to the public.

Given the dearth of other widely circulated evaluations, the report, "Making Standards Matter," has the potential to influence policymakers and the public in the continuing push to set high expectations for students.

Subject by Subject

The report marks the progress of states for the second consecutive year and, in general, includes the same criteria it used in 1995.

Since then, however, the focus on standards has shifted dramatically from the national level to the states, particularly as a result of the education summit of governors and corporate leaders in March and the resulting agreement by the National Governors' Association to create an entity to help guide standards projects. (See related story in This Week's News.)

The report makes no claim to addressing all the issues related to standards-setting. "While we do not attempt to judge the overall quality or rigor of the content covered in each state, we do point out obvious holes," it says.

"If you're not clear and specific, you can't even make a judgment," said Matthew Gandal, the author of the report. "The first step needs to be clarity, specificity, and content. Then you can judge whether it is rigorous or not."

Mr. Gandal said the union hoped that the entity approved by the governors would pick up where the AFT report leaves off and judge the quality of the standards.

The AFT looked at whether a state was developing standards in the four core areas--math, science, English, and social studies; whether the standards were clear and specific enough to provide the basis for a core curriculum; whether the standards included the subject's body of content; and how closely the standards were benchmarked. For example, the more gradelevel benchmarks included, the better a state usually fared.

The union also asked states if they had consulted international standards, were devising an assessment system linked to the standards, and planned to use the assessments to determine grade promotion or graduation.

Few states reported having such high-stakes testing, although 20 said they intended in the future to require students to pass a graduation exam based on state standards. The report did not classify assessments.

A new twist this year is a subject-by-subject analysis. By adding the breakdown, the report shows, for instance, that Maine's science standards are satisfactory, but its English, math, and social studies standards are not. And the union asked states whether they require or pay for extra help for students who may have trouble meeting the standards. Only 10 do.

The South Rises

Overall, the AFT found that almost all 50 states and the District of Columbia say they are strongly committed to standards-based reform. Only Iowa and Wyoming are not writing state standards.

But the union found only 15 states that have clear, specific, content-grounded standards in all four of the core subjects. Among them are such states as Colorado and Delaware, whose efforts have been widely commended.

Also among them, though, are a number of states that typically appear at or near the bottom of national student-testing rankings, including Alabama and Mississippi.

Southern states, in fact, fared favorably under the AFT criteria, while many of the states whose students achieve at higher levels, or those known for their innovations, tended to get failing grades, notably Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"In most of these [Southern] states, most of this stuff is pretty new," said Mr. Gandal, a senior associate in the AFT's educational issues department.

The AFT judged eight states and the District of Columbia to have exemplary standards in one or more subjects; among them are Florida's math and social studies standards, Massachusetts' science standards, and the District of Columbia's social studies standards.

Virginia, however, received top honors for its standards in all four disciplines.

The report also points out that states seemed to have a better grasp on setting math and science standards than they did for English and social studies. In part, the AFT attributes the weakness in social studies and English to the controversy surrounding the national-standards projects in English and history.

Who's in Control?

The criteria the AFT uses raise the issue of who controls the curriculum--the states or local districts and educators.

The union, for instance, recommends that state documents provide 60 percent to 80 percent of the academic curriculum, leaving the remainder of the decisions to districts, schools, and teachers.

From the AFT's perspective, broad and vague standards will lead to differing interpretations, and students will continue to be exposed to inequitable academic content.

But many state leaders say they do not want to prescribe curriculum."Missouri is a very strong local-control state," Robert E. Bartman, the state's education commissioner, wrote in response to the report's evaluation of his state. State education officials "will not dictate curriculum content to school districts," he said. Some responses from state officials are included in the back of the AFT report.

Wilmer S. Cody, the Kentucky education commissioner, noted his state's desire to strike a balance between writing standards and writing curriculum. "I expect that as long as we disagree on the principle, Kentucky will continue to fail to meet AFT's standard," he wrote.

And some educators maintain that the union actually is seeking to set a curriculum.

"The standard is one thing, and curriculum is another," said Patte Barth, a senior associate at the Washington-based Education Trust, which promotes high achievement, especially for minority and disadvantaged students. "What they call the Virginia standards is really a document of curriculum objectives."

"It is appropriate for the AFT to be rating," said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, "but the other dimension that they should certainly start paying attention to is, what is the level of curricular knowledge and level of performance reflected in those standards? You can be specific but have low expectations. You could have very specific low expectations."

Looking Out for Teachers

Ms. Darling-Hammond suggested that the documents coming out of the Southern states may be appealing to the union because those states traditionally have been more prescriptive, and the AFT is seeking a high level of guidance. "What is not being captured in that dimension is the quality of the guidance."

Last September, the AFT launched a national campaign to push safe, orderly schools and strict academic standards. At the time, AFT President Albert Shanker said education reforms were shortchanging safety and the basics and were too far removed from what the public wants from the schools. (See "AFT Project To Push Order and the Basics," Sept. 6, 1995.)

Observers also remarked that the AFT is, after all, a union that needs to look out for the best interests of its members. "I suspect the AFT is looking for the best protection for teachers, so there is no question that they know what they are supposed to be teaching, and then are able to defend what they are teaching," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, which supports standards-based reform.

The AFT does not dispute that. "Teachers want flexibility in the way they can teach the subject matter and the way they spend their time and the strategies that they use," Mr. Gandal said last week in an interview.

Vol. 15, Issue 41

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