Standards Opinion

Higher Standards, Stronger Tests: There’s No Turning Back

By Edward B. Rust Jr. — January 19, 2000 7 min read
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Let’s stay focused and moving forward.

No one ever said reforming American schools would be easy. Considering the recent flurry of criticism leveled at standards-based reform from pockets of parents and educators around the country, it’s important to remind ourselves why we’re raising standards in the first place.

First, the reality is that far too many American students still do not have the knowledge and skills to succeed in school, in college, at work, or in life. It’s not an issue of whether schools are better or worse today than before. The reality is that they’re not good enough for the more challenging work that today’s high school graduates are being asked to do—in the workplace and in college.

Only about one-third of American students are proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The percentages drop to about one-fifth in math. Scores are much lower for African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students. In addition, scores from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, show that even our most advanced high school students (the ones taking Advanced Placement math and physics, for example) trail their international counterparts.

Keep data like these in mind when opponents of reform say that there’s no crisis, and that higher standards, better tests, more accountability, and other sweeping reforms are unnecessary.

Second, those closest to students are demanding more challenging standards, with tests and curriculum to match. For example, research from Public Agenda shows the following:

  • More than 80 percent of parents say higher standards would strengthen students’ academic performance. Support for higher standards and better tests is strongest in low-income families, whose children have been poorly served by the current education system.
  • About six in 10 employers say that high school graduates do not have the skills needed to compete in the workplace.
  • About 80 percent of university professors and business executives give high school students only “fair” or “poor” ratings for skills in areas such as grammar, spelling, and writing.
  • Large majorities of students themselves say they would work harder if they were genuinely challenged in school.

Higher standards and better tests answer these pleas—and honor their requests.

Third, given the mediocre performance of most American students as measured by state tests, the American public has the right to demand more accountability for results. In the past, an anything-goes policy, in which teachers were encouraged to experiment with curriculum, might have worked for the students blessed with talented teachers. But the reality is that too many students were and still are falling through the cracks. A system based on clearly articulated standards makes the expectations clear and consistent for all students. Students are less likely to be held hostage to the luck of the teacher draw.

States should annually release random test items so that people can see for themselves that tests worth supporting challenege students to demonstrate mastery of the skills society most demands.

Can you measure success solely by test results? Of course not. I know no one who suggests that scores on standardized state tests are the last word on academic success. But I do know many who believe, as I do, that the skills required to reach basic or proficient levels on these new state tests are a prerequisite for more advanced learning. These new standards are the “floor” of basic learning, not the ceiling. These tests should be the starting point, and we should provide an educational system that allows students to master these basics and move beyond.

Polls have shown the public is increasingly dissatisfied with public schools—even their neighborhood schools. Improved student achievement as measured by state tests is an essential step in bolstering parental and public confidence in local schools, but it may not be enough to convince a wary public that higher standards have a direct correlation to workplace and higher education success.

States should annually release random test items to the public so that people can see for themselves that tests worth supporting challenge students to demonstrate mastery of the skills that adult society most demands. Skills such as an ability to understand and explain written passages, solve math problems that involve more than one step, and know the difference between a well-written sentence and a grammatical hodgepodge are essential to success in the workplace. Unless people can see for themselves that the tests make sense, opponents can continue to demonize them. This approach might also serve to silence the critics of “teaching to the test,” when it is demonstrated that the tests are aligned to the curriculum standards and assess the student’s proficiency in the skills most needed.

Yes, the tests put pressure on children to perform. However, it is wiser and ultimately more humane to identify academic weaknesses early. This allows teachers and parents to intervene in a timely way and keeps low performers from drifting all the way through school—only to learn, too late, that their knowledge and skills don’t cut it in the real world. Companies test entry-level job applicants, and it’s unfair for applicants to find out for the first time from prospective employers that they don’t have the basic skills needed to get the job.

Absolutely, the standards movement has a long way to go to fully live up to its ambitious promise of securing a much better education for all American children. Critics have raised a legitimate challenge. If the business community and other long-time promoters of standards-based reform are serious about helping all children do much better, we still have a lot of work to do.

(1) The top priority is for state and local leaders to get the policies right. That means having genuinely strong and clear standards, aligned closely to a challenging test and to incentives that demonstrably make students, teachers, and others work harder and smarter. Business leaders and other opinion leaders pushing for stronger schools should insist that every state have its standards and tests benchmarked against the best in the United States and the world, make the results public, and commit up front to making the necessary changes. States participating in last fall’s third National Education Summit committed to this agenda.

(2) Business leaders also need to insist that every state have a test that directly measures what the standards call for and what the curriculum teaches. Also, businesses should urge all states to participate in NAEP testing, so that we have a reliable way of comparing progress across states. Encouragingly, all but two states (Alaska and South Dakota) have agreed to participate in the 2000 NAEP tests.

(3) We need to insist that policymakers allocate (or reallocate) sufficient funds to provide more teachers and principals with instructional and leadership skills needed to help even the hardest-to-reach child reach new levels of basic competency. Research by the Education Trust and others paints a disturbing portrait of too many teachers with insufficient knowledge of their subjects themselves to instruct children effectively.

(4) We business leaders also need to lean more heavily on our counterparts in higher education. With few exceptions, colleges and university presidents have been AWOL in dealing with the national K-12 crisis. Admissions officers at all but the most elite schools fail to demand excellence from their high school applicants. Few colleges and universities have done anything meaningful to strengthen teacher education. They have routinely shifted this universitywide responsibility to mediocre and inadequate teachers colleges. A recent report from the American Council on Education, higher education’s umbrella advocacy group, supported these same arguments.

(5) Finally, and most importantly for the business community, we need to do better inside our own organizations. We need to ask students for transcripts and other student records; target philanthropy to teacher development; provide leadership training; and help our own employees understand why higher standards and stronger tests are needed—and how they can help more children succeed.

The challenge is not to back down when the going gets tough. We know the status quo is unacceptable. The challenge is to make continuous improvements—consciously, comprehensively, and cooperatively. This isn’t wishful-thinking rhetoric. Improved student achievement in states such as North Carolina, Texas, Connecticut, and Washington, and in communities from Philadelphia to El Paso to Seattle, demonstrate convincingly that an agenda centered on higher standards works.

These are the right priorities. The history of school reform is very clear on this point: Changing goals and reversing course spells paralysis and inaction. Let’s stay focused and moving forward. There can be no turning back.

Edward B. Rust Jr. is the chairman and chief executive officer of State Farm Insurance Cos. and the chairman of the Business Roundtable Education Task Force.

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Higher Standards, Stronger Tests: There’s No Turning Back


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