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Standards at Crossroads After Decade

Education Week.

September 22, 1999

Standards at Crossroads After Decade

By David J. Hoff

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
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
* 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.

* 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
"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

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
"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.

"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
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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© 1999 Editorial Projects in Education Vol. 19, number 3, page 1, 9

E. Wayne Ross
SUNY Binghamton

"Most everybody I see knows the truth, but they just don't know that they
know it." -Woody Guthrie

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