Nationwide Standards Eyed Anew

By Lynn Olson — December 02, 2005 9 min read
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With the federal No Child Left Behind Act underscoring the wide variation in what states demand of their students, people on both sides of the political aisle are again making the case for national standards, curricula, and tests.

It wasn’t so long ago—during the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations—that similar proposals went down in flames. Is the idea any more feasible today?

“Americans must recognize that we need national standards, national tests, and a national curriculum.”

Some prominent scholars and education leaders say yes.

In a Nov. 7 opinion piece in The New York Times, the education historian Diane Ravitch argued that the current strategy of “50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests” has not improved student achievement, based on the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“Americans must recognize that we need national standards, national tests, and a national curriculum,” wrote Ms. Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University. A longtime advocate of national standards, she led the U.S. Department of Education’s research branch during the first Bush administration.

That same month, the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a think tank dedicated to progressive policy ideas, released a paper titled “The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity.”

Contending that the No Child Left Behind law has created incentives for states to game the system by lowering standards, authors Cindy Brown and Elena Rocha argued: “Only national curriculum standards and national definitions and measures of student performance at proficiency levels can prevent this behavior.”

Looking Abroad

“I don’t think this discussion has gotten to the place where people are ready to do it yet.”

Besides the effects of the nearly 4-year-old federal law, advocates are pointing to the kind of growing international competition that is analyzed in Thomas L. Friedman’s current best-selling book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

“I’ve been watching very, very closely the educational progress in Asia—China, India, Vietnam, Singapore, and several others,” said Robert L. Wehling, a retired global-marketing officer for the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., “and I’m telling you, they’re making rapid progress, whereas we’re making minuscule progress. And I don’t think the average American understands the impact of this for our future, because they’re going to have the bulk of the intellectual and creative talent in the world, and that has devastating consequences for us.”

Given that global situation, the United States needs to define a common set of standards, “especially in subjects like math and science and related courses,” said former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, a Democrat, who also has been speaking out this year on the need for national standards.

“I don’t think this discussion has gotten to the place where people are ready to do it yet,” he added, “but I think the discussion among governors is at the point where they recognize they are facing very tough competition.”

Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, personally thinks it makes “a lot of sense” to have national standards. While the 1.3 million-member union has not taken an official position on the issue, she argues that national standards and curriculum frameworks “could also influence teacher preparation, and that would be a good thing.”

She said the union could consider supporting the idea “if we thought there was a possibility that there was an interest in doing it right, and really wanting to focus in on what students are learning, rather than what their test scores are.”

A Rocky History

Yet previous efforts to create national academic standards and tests have faltered in the face of opposition from the political left and right.

During the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the federal government provided grants to develop voluntary national standards in a range of subjects. The proposed “America 2000” Act, introduced in April 1991, also called for creating voluntary “American Achievement Tests” pegged to world-class standards in five core subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12. And in January 1992, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, formed by Congress, similarly recommended national academic-content standards and a national system of assessments based on those standards.

But the voluntary standards in some subjects, such as history, proved highly controversial. And the first Bush administration’s education legislation never passed Congress, amid wariness over the federal government’s role in prescribing curricula and debates about whether to have standards that would define the programs, staffing, and other resources needed to help students achieve at high levels.

In April 1991, a coalition of 50 education and civil rights groups and researchers also signed a statement urging the president and Congress to oppose the “stampede” to create national tests, arguing they could do more harm than good.

Nonetheless, the Clinton administration took up the rallying cry, with passage of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act in 1994. Among other provisions, the law established the short-lived National Education Standards and Improvement Council, or NESIC. It was charged with certifying model national standards and state standards and assessments submitted for its approval.

But the idea proved so divisive that members of the group were never appointed. President Clinton’s call for voluntary national tests based on the congressionally mandated NAEP similarly never got off the ground.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former research chief at the Education Department under President Reagan, argues, “All these endeavors succeeded mainly in reinforcing the assumption that national standards and tests are not politically viable in contemporary America.”

While he believes that the nation would be “better off with national standards, at least in reading, math, and science, and probably also history,” he said in a recent interview: “My gut tells me that we have the need, but not the will; that this would be a good thing for the country, but that federal policymakers, anyway, are not prepared to bite this bullet even though in their heart of hearts they probably know better.”

A Different Context

“I think the lesson from the last 10 to 15 years,” said Michael Cohen, the president of the Washington-based Achieve Inc., who as an Education Department official helped lead the Clinton administration’s work on voluntary national tests, “is that it’s difficult to separate any of the substantive issues around national standards and testing from the politics of education at the federal level, regardless of which party is in office.”

But Mr. Cohen and others argue that the context is different now. When the debate came up during the 1990s, says Ms. Ravitch, the public was not engaged. Thanks to the NCLB law, she says, 50 states are now involved in the effort to decide what standards are most important and how to measure them.

All states also now participate in NAEP reading and math tests in grades 4 and 8, a situation that was not the case 15 years ago.

“I think a lot of conversation, a lot of public discussion needs to take place, but today there’s far greater public knowledge and understanding than there was in 1992,” Ms. Ravitch said.

“It’s just a different context now, with a deeper understanding among the public of what’s at stake,” agreed Ms. Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress. “And, therefore, politicians can take a second look at this and, I think, consider it more deeply in a bipartisan fashion.”

Proponents also argue that during the 1990s, far less attention was focused on the question of performance standards—or how good is good enough—because the content standards themselves were still under development.

Still, others remain dubious of, if not downright hostile to, the notion of national standards and tests.

“Who is to say that a national test won’t be politically affected, like state tests are, and bars get lowered and raised?” said Elliot Washor, the co-director of the Big Picture Company, a Providence, R.I.-based nonprofit organization that runs a network of nontraditional high schools. “In essence, we have a national test, the SAT [college-admissions exam]. What has it done to improve issues of equity in the last 30 years?”

“I don’t see why the politics has changed to help this,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. “I see the Republicans even less interested in detailed intervention in local school policy, given how far we’ve come with No Child Left Behind, and I don’t see any change in the left-of-center Democratic opposition, given the large number of kids who are failing state exit exams.”

National, Not Federal

“We are the only developed nation in the world without, essentially, national standards and curriculum frameworks.”

Based on experience, many now argue that any effort to develop national standards, curricula, and tests should not be led by the federal government.

“I think we’ll get further down the road toward having standards that are accepted and used nationally if the work in this area is not a federal effort,” said Mr. Cohen of Achieve, “if it’s done without federal funds and without federal direction.”

Others say some federal funding would be appropriate, just as the federal government helped finance work on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, but that the actual work needs to be done by an independent, nonpartisan, high-profile group that has the buy-in of state leaders and subject-matter organizations.

“I do not think it needs to be done by the federal government,” said Mr. Hunt, the former North Carolina governor. “I think it should be done with federal support, but it can be done in the kind of way we have set our NAEP standards, or that various professional organizations, such as engineers and architects, have identified what their standards are.”

The biggest unanswered question, according to Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation, “is what body or entity would I actually trust to do this right?”

At least some point to groups like Achieve, whose American Diploma Project network now involves 22 states committed to aligning their high school standards with the demands of work and college. State governors and national business leaders formed Achieve, a bipartisan, nonprofit organization, in 1996 to help states raise academic standards and improve their testing and accountability systems.

Like Mr. Hunt, many also advocate starting with mathematics and, possibly, science, rather than tackling all subjects at once.

Such efforts could build on existing voluntary national standards and related documents developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Research Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

National standards also must be grounded in a real-world analysis of what students need to succeed in work and college, many argue, and focus on a common core that states and districts could augment.

Yet despite the resurgence of interest, even proponents of the idea acknowledge it’s an uphill battle.

“I wouldn’t mortgage my house on it,” said Mr. Wehling, the retired Procter & Gamble executive. But he added: “We are the only developed nation in the world without, essentially, national standards and curriculum frameworks. What makes us think everybody else is wrong and we’re right?”


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