Opinion
Federal Opinion

Evolving National Standards

By Marcus A. Winters — August 17, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s becoming a familiar question: How can we ensure that American students have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in today’s global economy? A big part of the answer is contained in the goals we set for them in the form of proficiency standards—the level of literacy or numeracy a student must reach.

These standards exist, of course, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. But they tend to be too low and too different from each other. Harvard University’s Paul E. Peterson and the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, for example, recently found that only three states—Massachusetts, Missouri, and South Carolina—have proficiency standards equal to those of the most educationally demanding nations. At the other extreme, their analysis suggests, states such as Georgia and Tennessee declare “proficient” students who cannot be considered either literate or numerate.

To address the problem of low and varying standards, the Obama administration has come out in support of a single national standard for these areas of learning, something that conservative groups such as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation have been advocating for years. Supporters of every stripe can foresee all states freely converging on national content standards someday. In June, 46 of the nation’s governors, acting through the National Governors Association, signed on to a plan to develop common standards in math and reading. Earlier this month, the number increased to 47.

But agreement is meaningless unless the standards agreed upon have teeth. In fact, most states adopt low standards because these produce high passing rates, which in turn reflect well on the local political establishment. Ordinary citizens are also pleased to hear that high percentages of their children are reading at or above a level defined as “proficient,” and so they don’t bother to ask what proficiency entails. Ironically, the No Child Left Behind Act, which was aimed at elevating student performance, has reinforced states’ tendencies toward leniency by allowing them to set their own standards while threatening sanctions if too many students fail to meet them.

A voluntary national standard, therefore, would either be a low one, so as to encourage participation, or a higher one that would produce a low participation rate. A rigorous, mandatory national standard is hard to imagine, because political pressure from poorly performing states would more than likely lead to a single, lax standard. That would result in an even worse outcome than the present patchwork system, which does allow for pockets of excellence like Massachusetts.

Difficult though it may sound, there is a way to afford states the autonomy on which they insist, while giving them incentives to steadily elevate their standards. The place to do it is in the No Child Left Behind law itself, which is coming up for reauthorization.

The needed amendment would take account of not only the percentage of students meeting a proficiency benchmark, but also students’ yearly academic gains, so that even states that clung to low standards would have reason to take measures to improve the education they offer. (Several states and urban school systems have already adopted systems that weigh both indices.) Since the respective states’ proficiency standards would still be allowed to differ, the tests they administered would have to be normed. So every few years, the federal government would administer each state’s test to a small but nationally representative sample of students. The percentage of test-takers who met the proficiency benchmarks on each state’s exam would reveal precisely how difficult each assessment was.

A revised NCLB law might then link some percentage of the per-pupil federal funding a state receives to this measure of its standard’s relative difficulty. The policy that resulted might give the largest amount of funding per pupil to the state with the highest standard, the next-largest amount to the state with the next highest standard, and so on. An even better system would take into account not only where a state’s proficiency standard ranked nationally, but also the degree of difference between its standard and those of states immediately above and below it.

States would then have an incentive to compete for greater funding by setting higher standards for their students. Because some, still-to-be-decided-on portion of the accountability score would be linked to the number of students meeting the proficiency standard, states would be deterred from setting unreasonably high standards. In contrast to a politically vulnerable national standard, or one that relies on states’ continuing goodwill, an objective measure of difficulty, coupled with a financial incentive to set standards higher than the next state, should make such a scheme self-sustaining.

Another benefit would be that, over time, the various definitions of proficiency would become more rigorous, as states competed with each other for federal dollars. Indeed, this would bring us closer to a single but continuously evolving national standard. All fixed definitions of proficiency are arbitrary. Under the proposed system, the answer to the question, “What should students know?” would always be “More!”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Evolving National Standards

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Classroom Tech Outpaces Research. Why That's a Problem
Experts call for better alignment between research and the classroom in Capitol Hill discussions.
4 min read
People walk outside the U.S Capitol building in Washington, June 9, 2022.
People walk outside the U.S Capitol building in Washington, June 9, 2022. Experts called for investments in education research and development at a symposium at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 13.
Patrick Semansky/AP
Federal Opinion Federal Education Reform Has Largely Failed. Unfortunately, We Still Need It
Neither NCLB nor ESSA have lived up to their promise, but the problems calling for national action persist.
Jack Jennings
4 min read
Red, Blue, and Purple colors over a fine line etching of the Capitol building. Republicans and Democrats, Partisan Politicians.
Douglas Rissing/iStock
Federal A More Complete Picture of Immigration's Impact on U.S. Public Schools
House Republicans say a migrant influx has caused "chaos" in K-12 schools. The reality is more complicated.
10 min read
Parents and community members rally outside P.S. 189 to protest New York City Mayor Eric Adam's plan to temporarily house immigrants in the school's gymnasium, seen in the background on May 16, 2023, in New York.
Parents and community members rally outside P.S. 189 to protest New York City Mayor Eric Adam's plan to temporarily house immigrants in the school's gymnasium, seen in the background on May 16, 2023, in New York.
John Minchillo/AP
Federal Explainer What Is Title IX? Schools, Sports, and Sex Discrimination
Title IX, the law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, is undergoing changes. What it is, how it works, and how it's enforced.
2 min read
In this Nov. 21, 1979 file photo, Bella Abzug, left, and Patsy Mink of Women USA sit next to Gloria Steinem as she speaks in Washington where they warned presidential candidates that promises for women's rights will not be enough to get their support in the next election.
In this Nov. 21, 1979, photo, Bella Abzug, left, and Patsy Mink of Women USA sit next to Gloria Steinem as she speaks in Washington at an event where they warned presidential candidates that promises for women's rights will not be enough to win their support in the next election.
Harvey Georges/AP