Higher Standards, Stronger Tests: Don't Shoot the Messenger

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The tension between equity and excellence has caused some to question the political stability and staying power of the standards movement.

In the education reform debates of the previous two decades, equity and excellence were too often viewed as competing, perhaps even mutually exclusive, policy goals. Since the mid-'90s, however, the movement to raise academic standards has emerged as a promising vehicle to accomplish both goals. One reason the standards movement has to date enjoyed broad public support is its implicit claim that we do not have to choose between equity and excellence, that our schools can significantly improve the achievement of those whom they have served least well historically while at the same time raising the bar for all. As new assessments and accountability policies have begun to be implemented in several states, the tension between these twin goals of the standards movement have come to the surface, causing some to question the political stability and staying power of this movement.

In Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, to name three recent examples, initial high failure rates on rigorous new state assessments, especially in districts and schools serving large concentrations of poor and minority students, have triggered attacks on the standards and tests themselves, and called for deferral or elimination of consequences based on the tests. In response, policymakers in these states have proposed lowering the passing bar, at least in the first year or two in which tests will count. These actions have in turn precipitated a counterreaction from those who fear that such a move signals a retreat from high standards and will sound the death knell for the movement.

Is there a way to resolve such tensions? Are equity and excellence in fact irreconcilable goals? Can this movement maintain its broad public support as educators and students face much greater accountability for performance? It was in the context of such questions that the third National Education Summit took place last fall in Palisades, N.Y.

The governors, corporate chief executives, and education leaders who assembled began by reasserting their conviction that improving the performance of our schools was the single most important long-term challenge facing the nation, and that the standards movement represents our best hope for meeting the challenge. What was especially heartening was that there was no bashing of schools or teachers, and no naive assertions that higher standards and tougher tests could by themselves produce significant gains in student learning. The focus of the discussion, and of the action statement adopted by the participants, revolved principally around three questions:

•What will it take to recruit, prepare, support, and retain a quality teaching force capable of teaching to much higher student-learning standards?

•What will it take to ensure that all students, especially those in predominantly low-income and minority schools, will be given the extra help and support they need to meet higher standards?

•How can states best structure their accountability systems to combine incentives for performance with interventions and consequences for failure?

Throughout the summit, participants took the opportunity to describe in some detail the strategies they were pursuing in their states to strengthen the quality of teachers and teaching, and to provide enriched and extended learning opportunities for students who were furthest behind. While the tone of the discussions was generally upbeat, there was a widespread understanding that we are in a race with time, and that it will take a significantly stepped-up commitment from leaders in all sectors if the twin goals of equity and excellence are to be realized.

The Summit Action Statement outlined a set of policy steps state leadership teams will pursue to address the key challenges, as well as a set of sector-specific commitments that governors, corporate executives, and education leaders made to support these policy objectives.

Standards-setting and test development ultimately rest upon human judgment and will therefore never be perfect.

To address teacher quality, the statement considers the arc of a teaching career. It challenges universities to create stronger teacher-preparation programs that provide educators with the content knowledge and skills needed to help students meet higher academic standards. It encourages states to create alternative pathways into the teaching profession to attract the most talented candidates. It makes professional development for teachers already in the classroom a top priority, emphasizing the importance of tying such programs directly to standards.

To that end, education leaders committed themselves to developing salary agreements that give credit only for professional development that is standards-based. Moreover, the statement supports the development of different roles and responsibilities within the teaching profession, and differential pay based on skills and performance. Business leaders have committed to work with 10 states to help them create pay-for-performance incentive plans that build upon lessons learned from such programs in the private sector.

The action statement balances the need for states to provide sufficient help and support for both teachers and students with the need to establish a firm timetable for holding them accountable for achievement. The challenge is to move forward aggressively on both fronts. The statement calls for states to provide increased flexibility and support for principals and teachers as they put in place consequences for results. More importantly, it commits state leaders to work together to ensure that every school has in place a rigorous curriculum and professional-development program aligned with state standards and tests, and it commits states to provide extra help and learning time for students before holding them back or denying them diplomas. (The full text of the Summit Action Statement, which also includes specific recommendations for improving standards, assessments, and accountability systems, is available on Achieve Inc.'s Web site,

The first test of these commitments will come in the quality of the responses states prepare to the action statement, for each state represented at the summit agreed to provide a detailed implementation plan, with targets and time lines, by April 1.

But their pledge to address aggressively the major implementation challenges while holding fast to the principle of accountability represents a strategy for avoiding the false choice between equity and excellence. The summit did not gloss over the fact that, in too many states, there are very real problems with the rigor, depth, and scope of student standards and the alignment of state tests with standards. Our organization, Achieve, was created three years ago to help states strengthen the quality of their standards and tests by benchmarking them against those of other states and nations, and this strategy was endorsed by the summit participants.

The critics who come out of the woodwork when passing rates on tests are low or allegations of cheating rise would rather blame the messenger than take on the shortcomings that standards and assessments expose. Doing away with the tests or the consequences is the easy way out—it allows us to avoid the hard work of improving instruction and restructuring the use of time and resources so that all students are given the time and support needed to meet standards.

Standards-setting and test development ultimately rest upon human judgment and will therefore never be perfect. States can and must seek to continually improve their expectations for students and schools and sharpen their measuring systems to ensure that school reform efforts are aimed in the right direction. While rigorous tests should be the backbone of state accountability systems, common sense suggests that states should not rely solely on the results of one-shot assessments, but should also take into account other measures of student and school performance.

The public still firmly supports efforts to raise education standards, and education remains the top national priority. But patience may be running thin. The concern of all who care about improving America's schools, and about sustaining support for the public education enterprise itself, should be on ensuring that all of our students have access to well-prepared teachers, challenging curricula, and extra time and help if they need it, not on debating the strengths and shortcomings of tests.

We know from results from the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress that states that have used higher standards to drive a comprehensive reform agenda—states like Connecticut, Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas—have seen the greatest achievement gains over the decade. ("States Committed to Standards Reforms Reap NAEP Gains," March 10, 1999.) We also know from the well-documented reforms in New York City's Community District 2 that dramatic gains in student achievement are possible in urban districts that establish rigorous academic expectations and concentrate resources on professional development and instructional improvement. If we focus on those strategies that have the greatest likelihood of improving teaching and learning for all students, as the summit participants urged, and hold firm on high standards and accountability, the results will take care of themselves.

Robert Schwartz and Matthew Gandal are, respectively, the president and the director of standards and assessment at Achieve Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Achieve was the principal sponsor of the 1999 National Education Summit.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Pages 40-41, 60

Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as Higher Standards, Stronger Tests: Don't Shoot the Messenger
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