Standards at Crossroads After Decade

By David J. Hoff — September 22, 1999 8 min read
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The 10-year-old standards-driven agenda for schools is being put to the test.

As more and more states begin to administer high-stakes tests, many parents, civil rights activists, and educators are questioning the wisdom of standardizing the curriculum and relying on test scores for such decisions as student promotion and high school graduation.

“Our concerns are basic,” said Meredith B. Scrivner, a parent activist in Whitefish Bay, Wis., who has led the charge against the graduation test proposed for her state. “One is, one test won’t be right for all children. Another is, we believe in local control.”

Critics also are working to derail tests in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas, using student boycotts, political lobbying, and lawsuits as their weapons. Though they haven’t stopped any of the programs, they are gaining enough visibility that policymakers are listening--and sometimes changing their plans.

When governors, business executives, and education leaders meet at the end of this month for the third national education summit in the past decade, one of their primary tasks will be to map out a strategy for answering such concerns while still maintaining momentum for the school improvement push that has its roots in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

‘Midcourse Corrections’

That agenda has focused on setting academic standards and crafting related tests as a way of measuring the student-achievement goals set shortly after the 1989 Charlottesville, Va., summit between President Bush and the nation’s governors.

“At one level, you want people to communicate that this is not another passing trend in education,” said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., the nonprofit group that is organizing the national gathering to be held at an IBM conference center in Palisades, N.Y., on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. “At the same time, you want to communicate that we are willing to make midcourse corrections.”

Even as standards advocates are saying they won’t lower their expectations for what students should learn, they face serious challenges in some places:

  • In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, one of Achieve’s co-chairmen, appears unlikely to get money in his state’s budget to write the high school graduation test he proposed.

Advocates for Education Inc., a community group that Ms. Scrivner helped found, has lobbied to remove funding for the test from budgets that have passed both the state House and Senate.

The bill is in a conference committee, and the compromise that emerges will almost certainly have no money for test development, according to one of the test’s supporters.

“I don’t see any momentum to get it back in,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, the senior Republican on the Senate education committee. “There wasn’t the backlash that people expected when it got taken out.”

  • In Massachusetts, student boycotts last spring put officials on the defensive about their state’s comprehensive testing system. Even business leaders--traditionally supporters of high-stakes testing--see the high failure rate on the initial rounds of the test as a threat.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education is suggesting that the state create a system by which students could earn several different kinds of diplomas, depending on how well they scored on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

  • In Texas, a federal judge this month will begin hearing a case that seeks to throw out the requirement that high school students pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests, or taas, to earn a diploma.
  • In Virginia, high failure rates on the first two administrations of the rigorous Standards of Learning tests have forced the state board of education to review the social studies portion of the exam.

Meredith B. Scrivner

  • And in Oregon, the state school board has postponed implementing portions of its “certificate of initial mastery"--a recognition offered to supplement high school diplomas--to provide more time to train teachers and write a social studies test.

On the national level, meanwhile, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans issued a report last week cautioning states against adopting tests that may discriminate against children whose English proficiency is limited.

Fear of Consequences

Opposition to a standards-based overhaul of education has festered since the movement began in the late 1980s. Initially, conservatives who feared federal control over local curricula were the most vocal opponents, said Susan H. Fuhrman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. Their concern reflected an initial emphasis on national standards and some form of national testing.

In recent years, as state-adopted standards have taken effect, opposition has been spreading. Now, state exams tied to those standards are starting to deliver bad news and may soon deny students diplomas.

“It was one thing to talk about standards. It’s another thing to talk about what are the consequences,” said Howard L. Fuller, the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

“As difficult as the standards discussions were,” the former Milwaukee superintendent said, “the consequences discussions, it seems to me, are going to be even more difficult.”

And because the high-stakes decisions will affect a broad range of people, the opposition now draws in those without any distinct ideology.

“There are a lot of middle-class parents” in Texas complaining about the TAAS, said Albert H. Kauffman, the regional counsel in the San Antonio office of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund. MALDEF represents minority students in the federal lawsuit trying to stop the tests’ use as a graduation requirement. “It’s pretty shocking for them because they expect their kids to pass any test, and then they don’t.”

Other parents, he added, are unhappy that teachers are focusing their classroom time on preparing children for the multiple-choice tests instead of leading discussions on classic books or conducting science experiments.

“In a lot of cases, their kids pass the test, but they see it as a waste of time,” said Mr. Kauffman, who reviewed a file of complaints against the TAAS to prepare for the trial that was scheduled to begin this week.

That’s one of the main complaints of Wisconsin’s Advocates for Education and of opponents of state tests elsewhere.

“Essentially, this test totally drives the curriculum,” Ms. Scrivner said of Wisconsin’s proposed graduation exam. “We believe it’s a step toward a state-run education system.”

In Upper Arlington, Ohio, the school system has abandoned its integrated curriculum and multiage classrooms because of the pressure of the state’s testing system.

“What the standards did was put a noose on our programs,” said Mary A. O’Brien, a leader of Say No To The Bullies, which is based in the suburb of Columbus.

Undercutting Trust

Even without opposition, testing systems can create their own problems.

Just in the past eight months, several states have faced questions about the accuracy and validity of their assessment results.

In California, Harcourt Educational Measurement made a series of errors in calculating scores on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. In New York, officials discovered that passages on the 4th grade reading test appeared in basal texts used in some of the state’s classrooms. In Austin, Texas, school officials are under criminal investigation for allegedly cheating on the TAAS scores.

Sometimes, the initial problems turn out to have no impact on the scores.

In New York, a review of the reading test found that its scores weren’t skewed by the appearance of basal passages. But it served as a warning that testing officials need to be vigilant about their products, said Richard P. Mills, the state’s education commissioner.

“You have to constantly audit and check and make sure, knowing the tests are created by human beings,” he said. “We have to be very forthcoming when there is [an error], and we have to fix it immediately.”

If they aren’t caught, problems undercut public trust in the testing systems.

“When you get into using these tests for something that really counts ... and then there are errors, it throws the public into turmoil,” said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky citizens’ group that has supported the state’s approach to school reform over the past 10 years.

So far, most groups such as Ms. Scrivner’s and Ms. O’Brien’s have had a limited impact.

Ms. O’Brien acknowledges that she and her small band of parents haven’t forced any changes in Ohio. While Advocates for Education appears headed toward a victory in the legislature, Gov. Thompson has vowed to fight again for money to write the graduation test, said Darrin E. Schmitz, his press secretary.

“He is determined to move forward,” Mr. Schmitz said.

In other states, the response has been to slow down or slightly alter assessments and the consequences they carry.

“By and large, states are not going to drop their testing programs,” said Monty Neill, the executive director of the Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit group that serves as a clearinghouse of information for testing critics. “It might slow down the expansion of the testing into other subjects.”

Even some advocates of standards-based improvement would be willing to make such concessions.

Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the Boston schools, suggested that Massachusetts policymakers might want to consider delaying graduation requirements that students pass social studies and science tests, which are scheduled to begin by 2003. They would, however, keep the English and mathematics tests.

But, Mr. Payzant added, the state should not lower its expectations.

Albert H. Kauffman

“If we back away from standards by lowering expectations this time around, it’s going to be a long, long time before we recover,” said Mr. Payzant, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education. “And that would be a mistake.”

Even though the standards movement has had support all along, its advocates expected to reach this point.

“There’s always been the question: Will that support stand up when there’s the potential that my kid is going to lose something?” Mr. Schwartz of Achieve said.

“We have to get people to say: ‘We’re going to do this despite the short-term political fallout.’ ”


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