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ESEA Reauthorization and Standards: A Chance to Do It Right

It looks now as though the Congress will reauthorize its latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  If it passes in the form that has been approved by the Congressional conference committee, it will provide a lot of latitude to the states to come up with their own standards and accountability systems.  This creates a much-needed opportunity for the states to reset their standards and accountability systems. 

In this blog, I will make some suggestions for ways in which the states can build not just world-class standards, but world-class systems of standards.  In my next blog, I will show how standards of the sort described in this blog can be married to other elements, especially first-class assessment systems, to create a very different kind of accountability system, one that is expressly designed to improve, not just measure, student performance.  

First, the matter of standards.  That word, in this context, has at least two very important and very different meanings. One has to do with what students are supposed to know and be able to do —what I call narrative standards.  The other has to do with how well they are supposed to know and be able to do it—which you may think of as cut points on the tests students take to show that they've mastered the narrative standards.  I would like here to give you a somewhat more complex definition of both kinds of standards.

Narrative standards usually consist of statements saying students should know this and be able to do that.  The people who write them usually think the standards clearly convey their intended meaning, but the people who read them often come away with a very different view about what they mean.  This is because statements of this sort are necessarily abstract.  Years ago, some of us were standing at a table looking at the new mathematics standards issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  At the same moment, a teacher of middle school mathematics and a professor of advanced mathematics pointed to the same passage and said, "That is what I teach in my classes."  Both statements could not be true, but each of these people had invested the statement with their own idea of what it meant. 

We tend to think of standards describing what students should know and be able to do as one thing, and assessments of those standards as something quite different, but, in my mind, each is necessary to complete the other.  In the top-performing countries, it is almost always the case that the examinations are based on course syllabi that define the curriculum that is derived from the standards.  In secondary school, the examinations require the students to write short essays in response to the examination questions.  All of the examinations questions are released after the examination is given and a library of them is available to everyone.  Examples of student responses earning high grades are released as well as commentaries on the grades given. 

In these countries, the narrative standards are only part of the standards.  The real standards consist of the narrative standards, examples of student responses that got high grades and the examiners' explanation of the high scores.  With a system like this, it is simply impossible for a middle school teacher and a professor of advanced mathematics to say that they are both teaching to the same standard.  The standard is much clearer with this enriched meaning of the term "standard."  Indeed in this world, the narrative standard and the standard used to determine how well the student has done combine seamlessly to produce one, not two standards.

Why is this so important?  Because, as I see it, the single biggest source of the very wide disparity of performance among American students is the difference in expectations that teachers have for different students and different groups of students.  It is almost impossible to address this crucial problem without a system of the sort I have just described.  Such a system not only makes what is expected of every student far clearer than it has ever been in the United States, but it also provides a crucial part of the resources students will need to achieve the kinds of performance expected by providing the curriculum frameworks and syllabi that define the courses students will take.  It will end the era in which some courses labeled "algebra" have algebra topics in them (for the students of whom much is expected) and other courses labeled "algebra" have no algebra topics in the them (for the students of whom little is expected).

But this begs the question as to what standards of performance should be set by the states. Since the typical community college first-year course uses textbooks set to a 12th grade level of literacy, we would suggest that there is a gap of—to be generous—four years between the literacy level of the typical high school graduate and readiness for the least demanding of our colleges.  How good is good enough?  Should a high school diploma certify that a student is ready to succeed at least in the typical community college?  The typical high school graduate in the top performing countries is two to three years ahead of the typical American high school graduate.  Should we settle for less than that?  Why?  Should we settle for high school graduates who are not going to succeed in a typical community college?

AheadofAmericanGraduates0.jpgMy proposal is that the states create a new, performance-based diploma, one that is set to one or both of the standards I just suggested, because almost everyone now says they believe that all high school graduates should be ready for college or career.  If they are not ready to succeed in a typical community college, it is hard to argue that they are ready for either a college or a career.  But, bear in mind, as I just pointed out, a very large fraction of current high school graduates leave high school nowhere near the standard of performance I just described.

So I would do two things.  First, I would set up the curriculum framework for high school so that it is possible for students to complete the courses needed to get to the new performance-based diploma by the end of their sophomore year.  If they are not able to reach the standard by then, they would have at least another two years to reach the standard.  Even students who did not get there until the end of their senior year would be far better off than they are now.  Students who reached the standard by the end of their sophomore year would be able to take Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate Program or the Cambridge A-levels and succeed in far greater numbers than they do now. 

One of the pernicious effects of the No Child Left Behind was the incentives it created for states to tie accountability only to English literacy, mathematics and science.  There is no doubt that basic literacy is essential, but few educators would argue that a person who is literate in only these arenas is a well-educated person.  I would argue that, if the states do take advantage of this moment to create the kind of performance-based diploma I have just described, they should ask themselves what it means to be a well-educated person in their state and include standards for the necessary additional subjects in their standards and examination regimes.  Among my candidates would be American history, world history, literature, (foreign) area studies, technology, economics, music and art. 

The other thing I would do to effect a smooth transition to the new system would be to keep the old time-in-the-seat-Carnegie-unit diploma in place, at least for a while.  That way, no student who would have gotten a diploma under the old system will be denied one, but the new diploma will be much more valuable and most students will want to get one.

In my next blog, I will address the question as to how well conceived standards can be used to drive a very different, and much more effective, accountability system.

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