The Next Steps

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At a time when education is increasingly seen as a national concern, what we have is individual states each busily reinventing the wheel.

In January, the report Quality Counts '99 summarized with depth and comprehensiveness the current state of educational assessment and accountability. (Quality Counts '99, Jan. 11, 1999.) Obviously, a good deal of activity is going on. Just as obviously, we have a great deal more to do if the standards/assessment/accountability movement is to have its intended effect.

At a time when education is increasingly seen as a national concern, what we have is individual states each busily reinventing the wheel. We have a standards-based movement, national in scope, with no agreed-upon standards to guide its development. And we have yet to deal seriously with the problem of finding the resources and developing the capacity we need to make the new system work, at the local, state, or federal level.

We have told ourselves that we want to bring all our students to high levels of academic achievement. The authors believe that if we are to reach this goal, there are six steps we must take to give the movement the coherence and support it needs.

First, we need a well-funded, long-term, nonpartisan research-and-development effort financed by the federal government, controlled by the states, and delivered by a group like the Education Commission of the States, Achieve Inc. (an organization of governors and business leaders), or the New Standards project. Such an effort would devise intellectually sound frameworks for developing high standards of subject content and student performance. It would analyze state testing programs to see if they actually measure the states' new high standards. It would develop voluntary national exams available at cost to states wishing to invest in challenging, technically sound assessments that yield apples-to-apples comparisons among schools, districts, and states. In general, it would be a resource for the states' standards/assessment/accountability initiatives and a source of information for the federal and state policymaking community. No existing organization has the capacity and the resources to do this job well now.

We argue that this research-and-development effort should be federally funded because of the national scope of the reform movement and because no one state has the resources to do the job. With the mounting national interest in the quality of education, the federal government will inevitably play a larger role. The proper focus of that role is on developing state and local capacity and measuring results, not on dictating the means by which education is to be conducted.

Second, we need to expand the capacity of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In addition to the tests that states and local school districts administer, we need the objectivity and consistency that NAEP provides. NAEP should perform state-by-state testing in reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history at least every other year. The state-by-state NAEP has been in an experimental mode with an erratic schedule for nearly 10 years. It's time to raise the federal government's commitment from $40 million per year to the $80 million per year it would take to do the job right.

Somehow, we must cultivate patience without losing our sense of urgency.

Third, states and localities need to fund their assessment efforts much more adequately. At present, most states spend under $10 per student per year--about two-tenths of 1 percent of total education costs--for their standardized-test programs. By contrast, a one-subject Advanced Placement examination (paid for by parents) costs $75. All students should enjoy the quality of examinations that are now available only to those able to pay for them privately.

Fourth, we must invest more adequately in developing the capacities of teachers and students to meet the new standards. Some policymakers seem to assume that setting the standards and holding people accountable for reaching them is enough. We disagree. Teachers are being asked to do something we have never done--bring all students to high standards of academic achievement. No business or military organization would undertake such a campaign without training its staff and providing them with the necessary resources. Schools must be staffed with adequate numbers of teachers well-trained in the subjects they are teaching. Teachers must have the opportunity to become familiar with new instructional material and acquire new techniques. Students must have access to up-to-date textbooks, functional laboratories, and contemporary learning technology. Those conditions do not exist in all places now. Where they are absent, sending students forth to meet new high standards is a prescription for failure--and an injustice to the students involved.

Fifth, public officials and educators at all levels must devote more time to engaging with the public about these issues. In the end, the effort will not succeed without public understanding and support. The public must be helped to understand that the need to raise standards is not confined to our inner cities: It applies to all parts of the country and all socioeconomic strata.

Mediocre achievement is not just a problem for poor students who live in other places; children in all kinds of communities are affected by weak standards, low effort, and poor results. The public must also be prepared to live temporarily with distressingly low test scores--of the sort that occurred recently in Virginia and Massachusetts--while the tests are being calibrated and people are learning the new system. At the same time, policymakers must remain alert to the issues raised by the public, whether they concern the nature of the standards themselves or the consequences of high-stakes testing on individuals or particular groups of students.

We are not calling for a one-way PR campaign--instead, we need an honest, open dialogue on these important issues.

Sixth, and finally, we must give the effort time. Somehow, we must cultivate patience without losing our sense of urgency. There is much to be done, the sooner the better; but we have undertaken a giant effort, and if it can be accomplished in a generation or so, that will be a dramatic achievement. Let's not be quick to pull the plug on what we know to be a sound idea.

If these steps are taken, we may see substantial gains in the next two decades. If they are not, some day before too long we'll read a Commentary in these pages entitled "Whatever Happened to Standards-Based Reform?"

Thomas C. Boysen, a former commissioner of education for Kentucky, is the senior vice president for education of the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif. Thomas Sobol, a former New York state commissioner of education, is a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 52

Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as The Next Steps
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