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Assessment Opinion

The Value of Standards

By Diane Ravitch — December 11, 2007 2 min read

Dear Deb,

I don’t understand why you are so certain that any state or national standards are beyond consensus, or that they will be entirely arbitrary. You also think that it would be politically and technically impossible to agree on what students should know.

I don’t agree.

I don’t think it is at all impossible, politically or technically, to arrive at standards and assessments that avoid partisanship and ideology. Consider that reading, mathematics, and science are already assessed internationally. There is already a consensus among educators representing dozens of nations about what knowledge and skills should be assessed at different grade levels.

Mathematics and science should be the easiest fields to reach a consensus, because—while there are certainly many controversies in both fields—it is also quite possible to identify important knowledge and skills that can fairly be tested. I just looked at the NAEP test. A typical fourth-grade question: “The Ben Franklin Bridge was 75 years old in 2001. In what year was the bridge 50 years old?” The student is given a choice of 1951, 1976, 1984, or 1986. There is a single correct answer. The student who answers this question correctly knows that she must deduct 25 from 2001 to get the answer of 1976.

It is equally possible to set standards for history and assess them, so long as those who are setting the standards draw the line between discussing controversies—an essential in teaching and learning history—and imposing a particular point of view about history. One would expect high school students who have studied world history, for example, to be able to describe the essential ingredients of totalitarianism, especially with reference to government denial of basic rights and freedoms. One would expect students who have studied American history, for example, to be able to write a brief essay on causes of the Civil War or to analyze the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Setting standards is not easy work; I don’t mean to suggest that it is. But I think that the value of standards is, first, an assurance that students are acquiring important skills and knowledge, regardless of where they live, and second, an assurance that students who move from one district to another will not skip, repeat, or miss important studies. Given the enormous mobility in our society, it seems to me to make sense to have some broad curriculum guidelines—not a straitjacket for teachers, but a syllabus that provides coherence and stability, e.g., agreement in a state about when students will study state history, U.S. history, and world history, with a brief description of the major ideas and themes of each year of study. Absent such an agreement, students may move and find themselves taking state history—or some other course—again and again. I don’t expect to persuade you but I think it might be useful to get our disagreements out into the open (again!).


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