Reading & Literacy

Fear Not Big Government on Standards, Says Fordham

By Sean Cavanagh — September 02, 2009 2 min read

One of most common objections that gets lobbed at efforts to create national standards is that they will require state and local officials to give up control over curriculum to a centralized, federal bureaucracy.

Yet that perception is not reality, according to a study from Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The report released last week, put together for Fordham by researchers from Michigan State University, added some potentially important insight and context to ongoing discussions of national, or common academic standards. The majority of 10 countries with national standards studied “incorporate elements of flexibility and are not based entirely on a top-down approach,” the report says, but rather allow for heavy doses of regional and local authority.

We summarized some highlights from the report in this week’s issue. A couple other points in the study worth noting:

—As the multistate, “common-core” standards effort rolls ahead, the study offers some of the clearest suggestions I’ve seen on the potential future role of the nation’s premier test of student academic performance, NAEP. It says: “National assessments (including open-ended questions) should be administered at grades 4, 8, and12 every two years. Most countries do not test every year in every grade. Given that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) already tests U.S. students in grades 4, 8, and 12, we suggest retaining that pattern and testing every other calendar year. ... Eventually the 12th grade end-of-high-school assessment could become a high-stakes test with implications for college admissions, course assignment, and employment (as in Singapore, South Korea, France, the Netherlands, Brazil, and India). Such an assessment, of course, would have to be given annually.”

As I read that, NAEP retains a very strong role in the scenario described by the authors. They also emphasize the importance of open-ended questions as promoting teaching and learning of reasoning and analytic and communication skills. While some European and Asian countries have shifted toward multiple-choice questions, partly because of cost, the authors also say that other nations they studied place a strong emphasis on open-ended items. Interestingly, in almost all the countries studied, teachers were expected to read and score those test items as part of their work responsibilities and for professional development.

—In a foreword to the report, Chester Finn, Mike Petrilli, and Amber Winkler mostly applaud the current “common core” venture, though they also say it will have to change to succeed. “As yet there’s not a durable organizational structure for the standards-setting and standards-revising process, much less one to operate an ongoing assessment system based on these processes. It’s all ad hoc. And that’s a big problem that needs to be fixed in short order lest the whole effort collapse under its own weight.”

They go on: “Someone, or something, must ‘own’ these standards. That means enlisting first-class content experts, educators, and laypersons to develop them. Keeping them up to date and relevant. Adding other subjects.”

How relevant are the experiences of other nations to a U.S.-based “common core”? And are the Fordham officials correct in their breakdown of what’s needed in the time to come?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.