Worries of a Standards ‘Backlash’ Grow

By Lynn Olson — April 05, 2000 12 min read

It sounded fine in theory: Set high standards for what students should know and be able to do. Give teachers and students the resources and help they need to reach the standards. Use tests to measure whether the goals are being met, and encourage results by rewarding success and penalizing failure.

Warren Simmons of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform says that too much emphasis has been placed on tests.
—John Abromowski/Brown University

But as “standards-based reform” plays out around the country, its uneven and sometimes careless implementation has led even some of its main proponents to worry about the gap between theory and practice.

“At this point, it would be hard to say I can identify a place that’s got it right, because there are so many ways to do it wrong,” said Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education.

She and other education leaders worry that the widely publicized missteps in state after state give critics of the decade-long standards push plenty of ammunition.

“We have to make sure that the implementation activities of the standards movement don’t kill the movement,” said Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, who emphasized that he remains a supporter of setting higher expectations for students and schools.

Such concerns echo those of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who earlier this year called for a “midcourse review” of where standards-based school improvement is headed. (“Riley Urges ‘Review’ of Standards,” March 1, 2000.)

  • Every state but Iowa has adopted standards in at least some academic subjects.
  • Forty-eight states have testing programs designed, in part, to measure how well students perform on those standards.
  • Twenty-one states plan to issue overall ratings of their schools based largely on their students’ performance.
  • At least 18 states have the authority to close, take over, or overhaul schools that are identified as failing.

But as states move from paper to practice, some have raised the ire of parents, educators, and students, who either disagree with the premise behind standards-based reform or have found plenty to protest in its implementation. In states such as California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio, grassroots campaigns are encouraging parents to keep their children home on test days.

Legal challenges against state testing programs are pending in Arizona and Louisiana. And in such states as Colorado, Minnesota, and Virginia, citizens are putting pressure on legislators to rethink state accountability systems. (“Testing Foes Hope To Stoke Middle-Class Ire,” March 22, 2000.)

While there are at least a dozen such hot spots around the country, states that have moved forward more carefully over the years appear to be weathering the storm. Nationally, public support for standards-based reform remains high, with states such as Texas and North Carolina beginning to show gains in student achievement.

Ms. Ravitch, who was a leading proponent of high academic standards during her tenure in the Bush administration and has remained a strong advocate since then, compared the dissenters to “crickets in the field"—relatively few in number but making a lot of noise.

High-Stakes Backlash

But others warn that policymakers should pay heed to the complaints or court potential disaster. “We’re now at the stage where the initial design of a lot of these policies is coming under heavy scrutiny for good reason,” said Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “The redesign part of this is going to be terribly important to the longer-term political credibility.”

Not surprisingly, the backlash has been strongest in states that plan to tie decisions on student promotion or graduation to scores on state tests.

“It seems like all we do is test,” said Elise, an English teacher at a middle school in East Harlem in New York City, where student promotions, school rankings, and principal appraisals are all tied to test results.

The 29-year-old teacher, who asked that her last name not be used because she did not want to hinder her school’s mission, said the pressures have grown so great that, earlier this year, she considered leaving the profession. “There’s so much pressure on the scores, with the tests coming in April,” she said, “that my creative juices have been stifled.”

Around the country, many other educators share her feelings. “I’m hearing from my members that they’re concerned, they’re anxious,” said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a former assistant education secretary under President Clinton.

Mr. Chase of the NEA agreed. “School employees feel absolutely overwhelmed by the pressures to succeed on these assessments,” he said. “It’s turning lots of people away from a movement that has a lot of promise.”

Twenty states, including New York, now require students to pass a test to earn a diploma; that number will increase to 28 within the next three years. At least half a dozen states plan to tie student promotion to test results. Such states have embraced what are known as “high stakes” tests despite virtually unanimous agreement among experts that no single measure should decide a student’s academic fate.

U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., plans to introduce legislation this week that would require states and districts to use multiple measures of performance if they are going to use standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions about students, such as graduation or promotion.

In Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and elsewhere, parents and educators also have complained that tests are taking too much time and are limiting, rather than enriching, the curriculum.

“If they judged all adults by these things, by these standards, I think adults would be outraged,” said Mary O’Brien, the mother of five school-age sons in the Upper Arlington school district near Columbus, Ohio. “We used to have this incredibly rich program,” she said. But now, she added, schools have “completely imposed the notion that testing will be taught to. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Ms. O’Brien is helping organize a ballot initiative that would eliminate Ohio’s testing system.

“What has happened is that standardized tests have been elevated to where they are the curriculum,” said Ann Lieberman, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an education think tank based in Palo Alto, Calif. “What we are doing is narrowing the kinds of activities and learning opportunities for students rather than broadening and deepening them.”

‘A Club for Compliance’

Marc S. Tucker notes the renewed attention to needs of minority students.
—Benjamin Tice Smith

One major problem, according to many observers, is that the accountability aspects of the standards movement have outpaced efforts to provide schools, teachers, and students with the capacity to reach the standards.

“To date, it appears that policymakers and politicians are more interested in using standards as a club for compliance than as a light toward better teaching and learning,” said Hayes Mizell, the director of the program for student achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy that is active in education.

On the positive side, he and others point out, standards-based reform has brought the needs of low-performing students and schools out of the shadows.

“I think one of the huge successes is what it has done to focus governmental and public attention on the needs of low-performing schools and students,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit that helps design standards-based education and training systems.

“Kids all over the country, in states that have been developing standards-based systems, are getting resources for after-school, Saturday, and summer school programs they have never gotten before on an enormous scale,” he said. “And this has happened, I think, entirely because of the standards movement.”

In states such as Texas, where the accountability efforts linked to standards spell out goals not just for a school’s overall student population, but also for specific minority groups, African-American and Hispanic students have made strong gains. “We can’t turn back from standards-based reform,” said Raul Gonzalez, an education policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group based in Washington. “That’s the only way we think that our kids will be able to become educated and be able to compete in a postsecondary education world.”

But the movement veered off course, he argues, when proponents of academic standards dropped their commitment to standards for schools, known as “opportunity to learn” standards, that would have sought to ensure that youngsters had access to high-quality instruction.

‘Turning Realistic’

“I think, unfortunately, what we have in too many districts and states is test-driven reform masquerading as standards-based reform,” said Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Providence, R.I.-based Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

“In the absence of serious attention and progress in the areas of capacity-building and resource allocation,” he added, “what you’re left with is lots of information about school failure, with people feeling a lack of support and information about how to address the gaps that are emerging.”

Many wonder how long politicians can sustain a large gap between the high expectations they’ve set for students and the percentage of students meeting those goals.

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, warns that in the absence of a credible plan for helping students achieve high standards, the public’s patience is wearing thin. He also cautions states against setting standards so high that conscientious non-college-bound youngsters cannot reach them.

‘Still a Lot of Support’

Like many other national leaders interviewed in recent weeks, Mr. Price does not believe the movement has failed or should be thrown out, but argues that changes need to be made, and made quickly.

“I think the conversation is turning realistic about standards very slowly,” he said. “The other thing we’re seeing is the beginning of forward motion on some key issues,” such as the need to improve teacher quality and professional development.

“The regret, of course, is that we’re not on a war footing in this,” Mr. Price added.

The lack of standards-related professional development for teachers and of curriculum and instructional materials aligned with the standards is often cited as a critical problem for teachers trying to work with the new standards and tests.

“We still have a lot of places where we don’t have the kind of curriculum frameworks that students and teachers need to go with the standards,” said Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has been a strong proponent of high academic standards. “And we still don’t have, in most places, meaningful professional development to enable teachers to teach to the new standards. So there’s still a lot of work to do, but there’s also, I think, still a lot of support for this direction.”

A national survey of AFT members conducted for the union last summer found that teachers favored a standards-based approach by a ratio of about 4-to-1. A similar survey done at the same time of principals in four states found their support for standards nearly universal.

Moreover, teachers in low-income and low-performing schools were nearly as supportive of standards as those in other schools, while black and Hispanic teachers were particularly likely to report that standards had had a positive impact on their schools.

The survey also found that the longer a school had been pursuing standards-based improvement, the higher the level of teacher satisfaction. That suggests, in part, that states can overcome initial backlash if they persevere and make adjustments as needed.

Many proponents of the standards movement point to Texas as the model of a state that began with relatively low, but realistic, standards and then ratcheted them up as schools developed greater capacity to meet them.

“I think that in places where this has been in place a long time, and it has been implemented in a fairly slow but steady fashion—Texas, Kentucky, Maryland—there have been adjustments, but not the kind of major backlash that we’re seeing in states like Massachusetts,” said Margaret E. Goertz, the co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a national research organization based at the University of Pennsylvania.

In contrast, states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia “did it all at once,” she said. “They’ve put in very high standards and are moving to hold people accountable for those standards very quickly.”

‘A Horrible Idea’

Some opponents of standards-based reform are hoping to use the current anxiety about high-stakes testing to derail what they view as a wrong-headed effort.

“It was a horrible idea to begin with,” said Alfie Kohn, an education author who is a prominent critic of the standards movement. In particular, he asserts that the emphasis on standards encourages a narrow, back-to-basics curriculum and substitutes a focus on results for a deeper engagement in learning.

He is hoping that, eventually, teachers’ frustration and dismay about standards will lead to a grassroots revolt similar to what occurred in Britain, where teachers boycotted the use of new national exams.

Other critics concede that it’s unrealistic to believe that the current push for standards and accountability will abate any time soon. But they are hoping that, in the current environment, they can make the case for a more decentralized accountability system: one that would give schools and communities more flexibility and that would reduce the importance of a single state test.

“I think we’re now more or less at the high-water mark” when it comes to testing, said Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass., watchdog group that strongly opposes most standardized testing.

Despite such concerns, virtually all of the movement’s proponents say they remain supportive of the concept and believe that there is no turning back.

“What we’re trying to do is difficult and takes time,” said Ms. Ravitch, echoing the sentiments of many other experts. “It’s too soon to say we tried it, and it failed.”

“This is just part of the agony of change,” she added. “I continue to think, ultimately, it’s going to yield better results than going backwards.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2000 edition of Education Week as Worries of a Standards ‘Backlash’ Grow


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