Assessment Opinion

National Standards and the Moment

By Diane Ravitch — October 07, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

When Gov. Roy Romer spoke of national standards at our recent debate, I believe he was suggesting the development of national standards and testing on a voluntary basis, starting with about 15 governors working together to derive a common program. He did not say whether he would want “stakes” attached to national testing. In my own version of national standards and testing, I would like to see a system that had zero stakes (like NAEP), one where the federal government or some national entity administered tests, released information to the states, and then left the follow-up (the stakes, the consequences, the reforms and sanctions) to the states and local districts.

In this country, we don’t have much “trust” when it comes to national education policy. The right is afraid that the left will take control and mandate left-wing ideas, and the left is afraid that the right will take control and mandate right-wing ideas. Thus, there is a very strong lack of trust that anyone who is in control will even attempt to be fair, nonpartisan, and devoted above all to the well-being of children, schools, and the nation. In this absence of trust, it becomes very difficult even to imagine a successful regime of national standards and national tests.

Yet there are many people—and I think that the various national polling organizations, like Gallup—who regularly find that the American public wants national standards, certainly in reading, mathematics, and science. The fiasco with voluntary national history standards in 1994-95 left a sour taste for many of those involved at the time. It is hard to summarize in brief what happened, but basically the people at the UCLA National History Center (funded primarily by Lynne Cheney and the National Endowment for the Humanities) wrote standards that contained some pretty strong partisan language. Even though the sponsors thought the standards had been pretty thoroughly reviewed, they nonetheless included many statements that revealed political partiality. In the fall of 1994, Mrs. Cheney was first to blast the standards (in The Wall Street Journal) for their lack of objectivity, and the very subject of national standards became too hot for anyone to handle.

Nonetheless, the subject comes back again and again because it is hard for many sensible people to understand why there should be 50 different state standards in mathematics, biology, chemistry, even American history. Isn’t mathematics the same in Oregon as in Virginia? Why should every state have its own version of chemistry? It is somewhat odd that we expect our students to participate in international assessments when state standards are so disparate.

Of course, the issues become less certain and more subjective when we turn to American history or world history, yet the questions—if not the answers—have a certain undeniable similarity. We do want all American students to be prepared to discuss the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the world wars. We do hope that they can reflect on issues involved in the development of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We want them to be knowledgeable about the urbanization of the United States, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the suffrage movement, etc.

On numerous occasions, I have had the opportunity to review state standards. In many states, the standards in every subject are vague; it really wouldn’t matter to anyone if they disappeared overnight because the real standards are those contained in the mass-market textbooks. When I have put together state standards and state tests, I have been depressed by the frequent mismatch. The state standards will say something like, “Students will be prepared to discuss…evaluate…analyze…explain,” but the state tests usually are offered in a standardized, multiple-choice format where students have no opportunity to discuss, evaluate, analyze, or explain anything!

I have often wondered how other nations managed to do what we find impossible to do: To develop meaningful and coherent national standards; to avoid politicization while doing so; and to use those standards to promote greater equity and excellence across their population.

I would rather see serious efforts to improve academic standards and education testing than the current mania for measurement. I see that Chancellor Michelle Rhee plans to fire a bunch of teachers in the District of Columbia based on test scores of their students; I hope she has lots of great teachers waiting in the wings. I see that Chancellor Joel Klein in New York City has announced a plan to measure everyone who teaches math and English Language Arts in grades 4 through 8.

It begins to appear that major urban education systems could be run by accountants, whoever knows how to do the numbers, administer the tests, slice and dice the results. No educators needed.


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