Special Report
Assessment Opinion

National Standards

By Diane Ravitch — January 03, 2006 7 min read
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Nearly a decade ago, when Education Week launched Quality Counts to track the progress of the standards movement, there appeared to be a strong, bipartisan consensus around the idea of educational standards. This had been evident in the first Bush administration’s America 2000 program and the Clinton administration’s Goals 2000 program. What remained to be determined was if and how the federal government and the states would translate this consensus into a reasonable and workable plan of action.

Although none of the components of America 2000 was enacted into law, the legislation signaled recognition by the Republican Party that the federal government should promote higher levels of academic performance (a big step for a party that had traditionally opposed an active federal role in education). The succeeding Goals 2000 attempted to goad the states to join the drive for standards and accountability by awarding funds to create state standards and assessments. President Clinton then proposed, in his State of the Union Address in 1997, voluntary national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics, a promising idea that did not win congressional authorization.

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In January 2002, President George W. Bush signed the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which had passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The law required the states, in exchange for federal funding, to test all children in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics; to disaggregate the results by race, ethnicity, gender, English-language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and disability; and to demonstrate that students in every category were advancing toward proficiency. Schools that did not meet their goals would have to offer supplementary tutoring and/or a choice of other public schools.

In light of this history, where stands the standards movement today? It is unreasonable to expect to see dramatic changes in a short period of time, yet already there is some evidence of solid improvement in 4th grade scores in reading and math, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ long-term-trend data. On the other hand, not much has changed for students in the 8th and 12th grades, perhaps because they escaped the incentives of the new regime.

Reconsidering National Standards, Curricula, and Tests

But is the new regime enough? Its main failing, in my view, is its reliance on the states to set their own standards and monitor their own progress. The idea that mastery of 8th grade mathematics means one thing in Arizona and something different in Maine is absurd on its face.

In a truly standards-based approach, students, teachers, teacher-educators, textbook publishers, and testing agencies should know what students are expected to learn (content standards) and what constitutes superior, acceptable, and unacceptable performance (performance standards). Because these decisions have been assigned to the nation’s 50 states and other jurisdictions, the basic premises of the standards movement—clear goals and clear accountability—have been compromised. With each state setting its own standards and measuring performance with its own tests, there are perverse incentives for the states to claim progress where it has not happened and to actually lower existing standards so as to demonstrate “proficiency.”

The same problems were identified 10 years ago by Mark Musick, then the president of the Southern Regional Education Board and the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board. He noted that although states were writing very similar standards, there were huge differences in how much they expected students to learn. As a result, in some states (Georgia, Illinois, and Oregon), more than 80 percent of 8th graders ranked proficient in mathematics, while in another state (Delaware), only 13 percent did. This was not because students were doing better in the former group of states, Musick noted, but because those states’ proficiency standards were far lower than Delaware’s. The only way to know which states had high standards was to compare the states’ own ratings with their students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Absent national standards that command respect, as NAEP’s do, standards-based reform will continue to be an empty promise.

Today, under the No Child Left Behind Act, this problem of inconsistent performance standards persists. In 2005, there were large discrepancies between NAEP scores for each state and the states’ own reports about the proportion of students who were proficient on their tests of mathematics and reading. Most states claim that large majorities of their students in 4th and 8th grade are proficient, but these claims are not echoed by NAEP. Only five states—South Carolina, Maine, Missouri, Wyoming, and Massachusetts—report results that closely align with NAEP results. Many others have set exceptionally low standards, and thus issue inflated reports of progress toward proficiency. Tennessee, for example, says that 87 percent of its 4th graders are proficient in mathematics, but only 28 percent are proficient on NAEP. Oklahoma says that 84 percent of its students in that grade are proficient, compared with 29 percent deemed so by NAEP. New York claims that 85 percent of 4th graders are proficient, compared with 36 percent who are on NAEP.

In some states, passing rates on state tests have soared in the last year or two, as policymakers lowered the required scores in different subjects and grades. In Arizona, for example, the passing rate jumped by nearly 30 percent on state tests of reading, writing, and mathematics after the tests were revised and the passing scores reduced. So the unanswered question remains: Do higher scores mean that students are better prepared for college and the workplace, or have the tests simply gotten easier?

The best way to solve the problem of inconsistent standards—and to counter some states’ decisions to lower passing scores (performance standards) to show “progress,” whether merited or not—is to adopt national standards. The No Child Left Behind law should be seen as an important transitional step toward this goal, by demonstrating the rationale for and the benefits of standards-based education, especially for disadvantaged students, and by building a constituency for change.

It is time to admit that the basic premise of “50 states, 50 standards” is a formula for incoherence and obfuscation. Our students currently participate in international assessments of mathematics and science. If educators in the United States, Greece, Germany, and Singapore can reach agreement on what students should know and be able to do, couldn’t the same agreement be reached by educators in the United States? If, as Mark Musick contended, the content standards in the states are very similar (and mainly aligned with the content standards of NAEP), why should the performance standards—the cut scores—vary widely? If we can agree that a football field is 100 yards long, that there are 12 inches in a foot, that there are 16 ounces in a pound, and that fuel-efficiency standards have the same definition across the nation, why not agree on the nature of academic performance that is “advanced,” “proficient,” “basic,” and “below basic”?

As it happens, NAEP provides an excellent template for national standards. School officials and editorial writers know by now not to trust local or state claims of progress until the NAEP results for the states are released every other year, thus verifying or rejecting state claims. In any move toward national standards, NAEP can serve as the gold standard, both for content standards and performance standards. Absent national standards that command respect, as NAEP’s do, standards-based reform will continue to be an empty promise.

A full education is one that prepares students not only to pass tests, but also to read, write, think, speak, and participate in society.

There is one other point on which standards-based reform has fallen short. In many jurisdictions, the demands of the No Child Left Behind law have proven to be a bonanza for test-preparation companies. Students are getting intensive coaching to help them raise their marks on reading and math tests, since those are the only subjects that “count” for NCLB purposes. Consequently, in many districts, important subjects like history, science, foreign languages, and the arts have been ignored. In some districts, children are prepared like trained seals, ready to check off the right box on a standardized test, but completely unprepared to read a complex text, understand the historical roots of contemporary problems, or appreciate the arts as a part of their lives.

As a strong supporter of standards-based reform, I reject the idea that education can be reduced solely to reading and mathematics. If that is the only definition of success for schools today, then we veer dangerously close to the possibility that we are schooling our children, but not educating them. A full education is one that prepares students not only to pass tests, but also to read, write, think, speak, and participate in society. We seem to be sacrificing the large goals of education to the near-term needs of politicians who hope to declare a quick victory over low test scores. Yes, it is good to raise scores, but not if it is done by dropping standards and lowering cut scores. Yes, it is good to help children learn to read and to answer math questions. But that is not enough. It is only a starting point for true standards-based reform of education.

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