New Bills Would Prod States to Take National View on Standards

By Lynn Olson — January 09, 2007 6 min read
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As Congress moves to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act as early as this year, at least one topic will be high on the list: increasing the rigor of state standards and tests by linking them to those set at the national level.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the new chairman of the Senate education committee, introduced a bill late last week that would encourage states to benchmark their own standards and tests to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often known as the “nation’s report card,” but would stop short of calling for the development of national standards.

And on Monday, Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, the committee’s second-ranking Democrat and a potential presidential contender, introduced a bipartisan bill with Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., that would go a step further by providing incentives for states to adopt voluntary “American education content standards” in mathematics and science, to be developed by the governing board for NAEP.

About 40 organizations have endorsed the Dodd-Ehlers bill, including such Washington-based groups as the National Education Association, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Council of the Great City Schools. The sponsors have just begun circulating the bill on Capitol Hill in an attempt to gain additional congressional sponsors.

Studies over the past year have found that, in many states, a far higher percentage of students score at the proficient level on state tests than on NAEP. That’s led to concerns that states’ standards and tests may not be stringent enough, and that pressure to meet achievement targets under the NCLB law may be having the perverse incentive of encouraging states to lower their standards.

“Core American standards would set high goals for all students, allow for meaningful comparisons across states, and ensure that all of our students are prepared for higher education,” Sen. Dodd said at an event held here Monday to unveil his bill. Creating incentives for states to adopt such standards voluntarily is the way to go, he stressed, emphasizing “there are no mandates here.”

Incentives for States

The Dodd-Ehlers bill, the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for all Kids, or SPEAK Act, would require the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, to create voluntary national education standards in math and science for grades K-12 and ensure that they are internationally competitive. States could compete for grants of up to $4 million each to adopt the math and science standards as the core of their own state content standards.

States that won the awards would have to align their state tests in math and science with the standards and with NAEP achievement levels in those subjects. They also would have to align teacher licensure, preparation, and professional-development requirements with the new standards.

As a further incentive to adopt the voluntary national standards, the bill would permit the U.S. secretary of education to extend the 2014 deadline for states to get all students to the proficient level on state reading and math tests under the NCLB law by up to four years. In addition, states that fulfilled the grant requirements would be eligible for additional bonus grants, equal to 5 percent of their Title I allocation under the federal law, to develop data systems that can track individual student performance over time.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has indicated, however, that she has no interest in shifting the 2014 deadline for all students to reach proficiency under the federal law.

The bill introduced by Sen. Kennedy would stop short of advocating voluntary national education standards, but instead would use NAEP as a national benchmark. That bill, the States Using Collaboration and Coordination to Enhance Standards for Students, or SUCCESS Act, would require that NAEP revise its standards and tests to ensure that they are internationally competitive.

At the 12th grade level, NAEP also would have to incorporate measures of whether students are prepared for college, the military, and the workforce. The bill would require the U.S. secretary of education to analyze gaps in student performance on state and NAEP tests and to identify those states with the most significant discrepancies. States could ask the governing board for NAEP to help analyze state standards and tests compared with the NAEP benchmarks and devise a plan to close any gaps.

Sen. Kennedy’s bill also would provide $200 million for state grants to establish P-16 Preparedness Councils that would engage members of the education, business, and military communities in aligning state standards with the skills needed for success in college and the workplace. And it would provide up to $75 million for state consortia to establish common standards and tests that are rigorous, internationally competitive, and aligned with postsecondary demands.

‘An Inexorable March’?

“The country is on an inexorable march toward national education standards,” said Michael Dannenberg, the director of the education policy program at the Washington-based New America Foundation. “The question is no longer if, but when and how.”

At the Monday event, which was co-sponsored by New America Foundation, Sen. Dodd played down differences between the two bills, saying that there are a variety of bills focused on raising education standards “is very encouraging.”

But he argued that his legislation would go further in changing the status quo. While the bill focuses on math and science standards as more politically feasible, he added, he’d support voluntary national standards in other subjects over time.

Sen. Kennedy’s office also downplayed any differences between the two pieces of legislation. “As today’s economy redefines the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global marketplace, it’s crucial now more than ever for our schools to challenge all students to learn to high standards,” Mr. Kennedy said in an e-mail.

But Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, and a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, cautioned that the Dodd bill would have a “tough row to hoe” on Capitol Hill. “When you get outside some policy elites, who are big on this, you don’t see a real groundswell of support” for national standards, he said.

Noting that NAEP is still “incredibly contentious,” he also questioned whether relying on NAGB to do the work is the best way to go. “I’m much more partial to letting the states do this from the bottom up,” he said. “I think you’re more likely to get that substantive buy-in.”

“All that said,” Mr. Rotherham added, “today was symbolically important in terms of national standards.”

“That you’ve got a bill from a guy who’s thinking seriously about running for president,” he said, referring to Sen. Dodd,” all substance aside, it was an important signal, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”

The Dodd-Ehlers bill also would require NAEP to test science, in addition to reading and math, in grades 4, 8, and 12 every two years and require states receiving school improvement funds under the NCLB law to participate in such tests for students in grades 4 and 8, beginning with the 2007-08 school year.

Associate Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this report.


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