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Guest Columnist Kevin Kosar: Do National Standards Have A Chance?

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National standards expert Kevin Kosar writes in with the following guest column on the current national standards debate:

While researching my dissertation on the politics of education standards just a few years ago, I conducted a number of interviews with smart people in the education policy world.


One of them was Checker Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Just over four years ago, Checker graciously fit me into his dense schedule and we spoke at length.

When I raised the question of national standards, Checker responded, that “nobody wants” national standards and that idea “isn’t even being discussed.”

Four years later, Finn and Fordham have taken the lead in promoting national education standards, and H.R. 325, a bill to create national standards, has been introduced in the House.

What changed? Not much; yet, we still may end up with national standards.

In part, this proposal is a rational response to states’ struggle to create good education standards. Yes, some states have done well; most, though, have floundered. Hence, why not have the federal government create the standards and give them to the states?

But for the longest time, it has seemed that national standards were a hopeless cause. Elsewhere I have argued that “While national education standards may make good sense as policy, politically they would appear to be as doomed as they were 15 years ago.”

Why the grim forecast? In part, my sense was that politics would torpedo any national education standards bill. What schools teach always has been an intensely political issue.

That said, I must confess, H.R. 325 could actually be enacted.

The bill is adroitly drafted. It would require the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the overseer of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), to “create or adopt voluntary American education content standards in mathematics and science.” States would receive grants for adopting the standards.

It is a clever proposal that does its darnedest to avoid politics. For one, the national standards would be voluntary. For another, the standards are not to be created de novo; rather, they must be based on the NAEP frameworks that guide the NAEP examinations.

So, it is unlikely that we would see a repeat of the standards debacles of the early 1990s when academics produced standards that the media and politicians blasted for political correctness.

Finally, the choice of NAGB is a clever because NAGB already has, arguably, established something akin to national standards. So, supporters of H.R. 325 can argue that the bill is a modest evolution in policy.

Perils, however, remain for H.R. 325.

Issue #1: H.R. 325 offers a measly $4 million to a state in exchange for adoption of the standards and carrying out a number of onerous mandates (e.g., aligning teacher certification or licensure with the standards.) It is hard to see many states seeing that at an attractive deal.

Issue #2: Those who distrust the federal government likely will argue that H.R. 325 makes a mockery of current law. 20 U.S.C. 1232(a) forbids “any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum [of schools].”

Issue #3: Members (ex officio ones excepted) of NAGB are appointed by the Secretary of Education. No doubt, some folks will growl that this bill would give the Secretary an unfettered power to establish politicized curricula and assessments. When you have the U.S. Park Service peddling creation science booklets , such fears cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Issue #4: H.R. 325 wisely steers clear of the most politicized parts of the curricula, health/sex education, history, and English. Science, though, may be a problem. I would be surprised if hardcore religious groups would stay mum if H.R. 325 does not require NAGB to include creationism in the science standards. President Bush himself has said he thinks students should hear “both sides.”

If this bill can somehow get around these remaining obstacles, it could find itself in the clear. If not, it will find itself where many other such proposals have ended up: on a shelf, waiting for another time.

Mr. Kosar is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).

5 Comments

Alexander,

Kevin Kosar raises good points, but even if those hurdles can be overcome, the Dodd-Ehlers bill would not solve the problem those arguing for national standards want to address: the variations in proficiency expectations across states. Note that the bill would establish only national *content* standards. Proficiency is a *performance* standard, and states will still have a lot of flexibility in setting those.

First, each state would continue to develop and use its own test. As most independent studies of alignment between tests and standards have shown, alignment has been pretty weak: tests measure content included on the standards, but they tend to focus on the lower-level content. So the national standards could be exemplary and challenging, but the tests could be relatively unchallenging.

Second, states would then set definitions of proficiency based on their tests. They could, as they do now, set the definition so that students could be judged proficient even if they do not answer any of the difficult questions correctly, or if they answer a relatively low percentage of questions correctly.

True, NAEP will continue to come out with reports showing that smaller percentages of students in many states are "proficient" compared to those on state tests, and states will have one fewer reason to dismiss those comparisons (now they can claim, rightly, that state tests and NAEP are based on different standards). But if the idea is that reports of these discrepancies will shame states into raising their proficient standards, consider me skeptical. They haven't had that effect so far, and as long as NCLB sanctions ride on proficiency definitions, states are not likely to make things more difficult for their schools.

Hey Kevin,
Lose the bow tie.

Bob Rothman's comments are right on. National standards won't work directly on states' assessments; states will retain the right to define "proficient" as high or low as they please.

I suppose, though, that I am a bit more sanguine about the possibilities for positive "shame effects." Bob writes,

"True, NAEP will continue to come out with reports showing that smaller percentages of students in many states are "proficient" compared to those on state tests, and states will have one fewer reason to dismiss those comparisons (now they can claim, rightly, that state tests and NAEP are based on different standards). But if the idea is that reports of these discrepancies will shame states into raising their proficient standards, consider me skeptical. They haven't had that effect so far, and as long as NCLB sanctions ride on proficiency definitions, states are not likely to make things more difficult for their schools."

Back in the 1980s, Ed. Sec. Terrel Bell drove state leaders bonkers when he displayed a wallchart depicting the differences in student achievement in the states. Similarly, when Mark Musick, formerly head of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), produced a white paper that compared stated' passing rates vs. NAEP passing rates, state leaders went bananas. So, I think there is the potential for shame effects to force states to define their proficiency standards upward. But, you are correct that the current AYP law/regs create a countervailing force that rewards states for keeping proficiency standards low. As I have argued elsewhere, that policy needs rethinking.

National standards, with corresponding defined levels of proficiency are almost guarenteed over the next decade, hopefully sooner. They will eventually gain national acceptance due to pressure on state legislatures. Taxpayers will demand it. Senators Kennedy (D-Ma)and Dodd (D-Conn) have laid the foundation for this to happen. As an egalitarian I, along with millions, will insist youngsters from Massachusetts to Mississippi have equal access to the rich body of knowledge we expect of all our children.

Re: using shame to raise standards, the Jan. 24, 2007 copy of the New York Times reports that the Bush administration has proposed amending the No Child Left Behind Act. One change includes "requiring states to publicize how their students perform on a national exam, known as the nation’s report card, side by side with student performance on state exams. The move is intended to pressure states to make their own standards more rigorous."

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