‘New Standards’ Leaves Legacy Of Unmet Goals

By David J. Hoff — August 08, 2001 12 min read
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Ten years ago this month, a group of some of the nation’s best-known education thinkers assembled 450 educators to lay the groundwork for changing the nature of American schools.

Organizers of the New Standards Project envisioned a curriculum built around standards defined by what students ought to know, not by time spent in class. They promised to create tests to measure students’ skills, not just their knowledge of facts. And they expected that teachers would center everything they did on the new curriculum and preparation of students to take the tests.

The founders said they’d have the pieces in place by 2001. Twenty-two states and six urban school districts eventually bought in to the concept and joined them. Today, though, the initiative’s leaders acknowledge they fell short of achieving their vision.

While 49 states have adopted academic standards and most have tests, they generally aren’t of the quality that New Standards aimed for. What’s more, classroom teachers for the most part haven’t gotten the support they need to make anything other than superficial changes in their classroom practices. And now, only Rhode Island, Vermont, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense schools use the New Standards exams.

“When you do something as expansive as what we did, you have to have a belief you can make almost anything happen,” said Lauren B. Resnick, a co-director of the project—now called simply New Standards—and a noted education researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. “We don’t see in place everything that we set out to do, but there’s probably been more done than would have been reasonable to expect to be done in 10 years.”

Others, however, see New Standards as a missed opportunity to craft high-quality standards and tests that states could share.

“Had we been able to pull it together in a timely way,” said Gene Wilhoit, the Arkansas director of education when that state was part of the project, “we’d be in a different place right now.”

Instead of continuing to rely on multiple-choice tests that measure one student against another, as many states currently do, states might have built their testing programs around the performance-based tasks that Ms. Resnick and Marc S. Tucker, the project’s other co-director, advocated.

That never happened, Mr. Wilhoit and others say, because the project often failed to meet deadlines for standards or tests promised to its members. Without those materials, the states were forced to put together their own standards and accountability systems, said Mr. Wilhoit, now Kentucky’s education commissioner.

Overseas Models

The New Standards Project evolved from a 1990 report by the National Center for Education and the Economy detailing the education systems in countries where workers’ real wages were rising.

The panel convened by the private, nonprofit center—then based in Rochester, N.Y., but now headquartered in Washington—found that all the countries had three common elements: standards for student performance, curriculum frameworks detailing how schools could help students reach those standards, and an examination system assessing whether students met the standards. Mr. Tucker, the center’s executive director, and Ms. Resnick, a member of the panel, set out to replicate the model in the United States.

In late 1990, they secured $2.5 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to begin their work.

The grants subsidized the first 18 months of a 10-year project to take “the first steps toward development of a new student-performance system,” according to a press release. The testing systems would combine test questions that demanded writing and high-level problem-solving with examples of student work done as part of class-related projects. They would eschew the standardized, multiple-choice tests common in U.S. schools for most of the century.

The strategy received a major boost the following spring when the first Bush administration announced its America 2000 school reform program, which called for a set of academic standards and a national examination system.

Before most national subject-matter groups had issued standards recommended for learning in their respective fields, the New Standards Project began laying the groundwork for writing performance-based tests. The work began in earnest at a Colorado ski resort in August 1991, where state policymakers, teachers, and administrators started designing what the tests might look like. (“Educators Begin Assembling Building Blocks for National Exam,” Sept. 4, 1991.)

Shortly thereafter, the project piloted 4th grade mathematics and reading exams that relied exclusively on performance questions requiring students to write out answers and show their work. There were no multiple-choice questions.

By July 1992, the project had won an additional $8.5 million from Pew and MacArthur, and 17 states and six urban districts had joined the work. The participants enrolled half the students in the United States.

But for all the signs of success, the project started to bog down because many of the states didn’t share the enthusiasm for it that Ms. Resnick and Mr. Tucker did, some participants say.

“Lots of states were under pressure to do something about performance assessment,” said Michael Cohen, who worked for the National Center for Education and the Economy and helped recruit participants for the New Standards Project.

“You knew you could buy time if you said, ‘Not to worry. We’ve joined New Standards,’” said Mr. Cohen, who became a key education adviser in the Clinton administration.

Later, New Standards started missing deadlines, Mr. Wilhoit said, leaving states that relied on its documents in a lurch."There were some fairly specific verbal commitments that if states invested in this, there would be products,” said Mr. Wilhoit, who eventually pulled Arkansas out of the project. “I stood there with no assessment in place, and I had to scramble to get some things to be proxies for what I thought I’d have” from New Standards.

Arkansas solved the problem by using the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, a popular test that emphasizes multiple-choice questions but includes some performance-based items. It also hired another testing company to write performance-based tests.

Tough Work

Ms. Resnick and Mr. Tucker say the New Standards Project fell short of what it aimed to accomplish because of the vast scale of the work that needed to be done.

At the start, the group assumed it could build its assessment system around the academic-content standards written by the national subject-area groups. But as those standards were published, New Standards officials found them to be too general. Nor did they include examples of the quality of work expected of students.

New Standards’ leaders decided to write their own standards to base their tests on, Mr. Tucker said. That set the project back.

At the same time, the demands for products often outpaced the project’s ability to deliver, Ms. Resnick acknowledged.

In the early 1990s, “everybody’s sense of what was needed was changing every six months,” she said. Because tests typically take three years of research, piloting, and production, it became impossible to keep up.

By the mid-1990s, a huge political shift that brought in a legion of new governors, many of them conservative Republicans, changed what state officials wanted from the project. While policymakers once were interested in collaborating on creating standards and assessments, project officials say, the newer leaders felt compelled to produce accountability systems they could call their own.

“They saw themselves as out on a very big limb,” Mr. Tucker said. “They were being attacked by people on the right and from the left. The only way they saw they could do it was to say, ‘We put together our standards ourselves. This isn’t a national exam.’ ”

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan, suggests that many states may have been reluctant to accept standards that weren’t homegrown in the aftermath of controversy over such national standards as those written for history. “People may have emerged from that saying each state better do its own,” said Mr. Finn, the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

But he also wonders if the New Standards’ products were “too refined and subtle” for a standards era driven largely by noneducators.

Although the New Standards Project missed some deadlines, Ms. Resnick said much of the problem was the technical impossibility of producing what states wanted.

Toward the partnership’s end in 1996, states were asking for an “item bank” of performance questions they could insert into their own systems. But New Standards couldn’t do that while also writing its own sets of exams. To offer test questions in an item bank and allow states to publish them would have compromised the security of the New Standards exams.

“We could have done one or the other,” Ms. Resnick said. New Standards chose to develop its own tests.

Finished Products

What New Standards did produce became an important resource for every state, observers say.

Most states consulted and even borrowed from New Standards publications for English/language arts, mathematics, science, and applied learning, according to Thomas Sobol, an active participant in the project while he was the state commissioner of education in New York."They developed a prototype for people to use,” said Mr. Sobol, now a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “They created a climate where this was serious business that everyone ought to participate in.”

In addition, some big cities—such as New York and Sacramento, Calif.—have modeled their standards after the New Standards Project and created performance-based exams to match.

In 1996, the project published its long-awaited testing program for English/language arts and mathematics for the 4th, 8th, and 10th grades. But by then, many states had already hired other contractors to write their tests.

Because the New Standards tests are based on performance items and cover only portions of a subject’s standards every year, they aren’t good barometers for high-stakes decisions for students or even schools. The trend in states has been toward accountability systems that use test scores to decide, for instance, whether students will graduate and whether schools will face state penalties.

“New Standards is terrific in a classroom use,” said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the superintendent of the 78,000-student Austin, Texas, schools and a member of the New Standards Project when he was Delaware’s secretary of education. “The hard part comes when you try to move it into the accountability dimension.”

Lasting Impact

It will be even harder to sell the tests if Congress enacts President Bush’s test-based accountability plan, Mr. Forgione added, because it would require states to assess students every year in grades 3 through 8. But while the New Standards exams aren’t geared to accountability purposes, Rhode Island officials expect them to help show the kinds of lessons the state wants students to get in class.

“We hope that they are going to inform instruction,” said Ann Snider, the state’s assessment director. “They model for teachers the kind of items we’d like kids to respond to as part of their learning experiences.”

Whether the testing program or any other New Standards products become big sellers is irrelevant when judging the project’s success, its leaders and supporters argue.

The effort was a “smashing success” just because it focused the dialogue on setting standards and matching tests to them, said David W. Hornbeck, a former superintendent of the Philadelphia schools, who worked with the project in the early 1990s.

“Probably the most valuable thing from the New Standards Project was putting us in a network of states” working on standards, added Cheryl Z. Tibbals, who worked with the project while an official in the Kentucky education department and later became its director of state and local relations. She is now the state leadership center director for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

But critics say New Standards’ success in getting its philosophy accepted was a hollow victory because state officials ignored its call for performance-based tests.

“Their emphasis on testing and high-stakes accountability fed in to the way that standards have been reduced to state tests,” said Monty Neil, the executive director of the Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group critical of standardized-testing programs. “What we’re seeing instead of the rich array of assessments is simply a bunch of tests.”

While taking credit for moving the political dialogue toward their vision, Mr. Tucker and Ms. Resnick acknowledge that the tests that states have adopted incorporate merely smatterings of the challenging performance items the New Standards leaders touted for most of the past decade. Tests are “mostly poorly aligned” with state standards, Mr. Tucker said, and few are much different from the basic-skills tests that dominated schools in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“What [states have] done so far is graft some of the future system we like very much onto one that we don’t,” he said.

Ms. Resnick points to Massachusetts, Missouri, and New York as states moving toward tests that are “very much in the spirit” of what New Standards was trying to accomplish.

New Standards continues to work on small projects. It recently published standards for speaking and listening for preschool through 3rd grade. (“Group Issues Standards on Speaking, Listening for Preschool to 3rd Grade,” May 2, 2001.)

Ms. Resnick and Mr. Tucker, meanwhile, are still working on separate projects they expect will have the long-lasting impact they had hoped for in their first collaboration. Mr. Tucker and the National Center on Education and the Economy are working with 450 schools that will implement their vision of standards- and assessment-based schools. Ms. Resnick is a consultant in such school systems as Austin and Los Angeles.

Both say they are satisfied with the changes their efforts through New Standards brought about. And they are optimistic that their work will continue to influence American schools.

Now, though, they aren’t predicting when U.S. schools will reach the New Standards version of utopia. “None of us will know the answer to that,” Mr. Tucker said, “until we sit here 10 years from now and ask that question again.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘New Standards’ Leaves Legacy Of Unmet Goals


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