Common National Standards – Is This Such a Good Idea?

We have a new push for a single national set of content standards. eSchoolNews Support Grows for Common Standards reports, “the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was among the many supporters of common standards to testify at the hearing. Others included the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).”

On the surface it makes sense–we currently have 50 sets of state standards that vary in content and rigor; each state is paying millions of $$ for its own set of testing to measure these separate standards. Just for the sake of efficiency, how could it NOT make sense to create a single set of standards?

I have already commented on some of the inherent weaknesses with content standards (When Content Standards Go Bad ), and others as well (Koehn’s Case Against “Tougher Standards” or Warlick’s closing comments in “Let’s just put them all in jail 24/7“). But nationalizing the process brings on a whole new set of issues. While there are many perspectives on national standards worthy of examination–how the standards should developed and chosen, the format and style of the standards, the process for updating these standards–the most important aspect of all the issues come down to this statement: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ASSESSMENT.

Standardized testing is designed to be low-cost (not for the purchasers, rather for the producers). As described by, “There is an increasing unease that we have reduced our learning objectives to only those things that can be measured in such an economical format..To the degree that we have “dumbed down” our curricula to fit the confines of short-answer tests, we shortchange both our students and our society in need of higher order learning to compete well in a global information society.” Content standards that can measured with multiple choice tend to be, well, content oriented. Higher order thinking skills (HOTS) and 21st Century skills are difficult to measure with these tests. That leaves policy-makers with a choice: only have standards that can be measured with standardized tests or implement  some standards that are not assessed. Can we really have national standards that are not measured on nationwide standardized tests? Politically, not a chance.

Having worked with disparate programs like evaluating laptop projects and developing growth models from testing data, it’s easy to come to the same conclusion–education has lousy measures. With the laptop project, we had an enormous amount of data concerning laptop use, attitudes, and perspectives. The missing ingredient? Viable data to show academic growth. Through NCLB, the state tests only one grade in the high schools. These tests are summative in nature by providing a quick snapshot once a year. They have improved in their reporting on student achievement on individual standards, but they are not formative by any stretch of the imagination.

Nationally there has been a large push for utilizing growth models based on standardized tests, but they are terribly constrained by the limitations of the tests themselves. Most models use statistical tools like linear regression comparing students against the rest of the state–basically grading on the curve.

Since the tests are conducted once a year for grades 3-8 and one high school grade, that means we have growth data for grades 4-8. Primary teachers and high school teachers are out of luck. Because most tests are reading and math (science is now coming on board with NCLB), most teachers in middle school and high school are out of luck as well.

Standards based on these tests are just not good enough. Standards based on current school needs should be fewer in number and deeper in scope. Even if the process starts with fewer standards, there will be a lot of lobbying for “pet” standards to be added. Over time standards will grow and grow, which means depth of learning becomes less and less. Also, assessing these deeper standards requires formative assessments over the course of the year measuring true academic growth for all subjects for all grades. Let the cost escalation begin.

The eSchoolNews article closes with quotes from the CCSSO president, Ken James:

“The purpose of the common state standards initiative is to raise the bar for all states by drawing on the best research and evidence,” James said. “The most basic way to impact student achievement … is to guarantee that what is being taught in classrooms in every ZIP code of this nation is both rigorous and relevant.”

He added: “States are [no longer] preparing our students to compete with students in the neighboring school district or even the neighboring state. We are preparing them to compete globally and, in order to do so, we must make sure that we equip students across this nation with the learning blocks to reach the same high standards.”

Standards based on content measured strictly with multiple choice tests cannot really be more rigorous, just harder to answer (they are not the same). Unfortunately, many educators believe rigor means higher volume of the same kind of school work –has anyone gotten through a graduate program without at least one class that fits that bill? Harder answers and more of the same does not make rigor.

Also, for standards to stay “relevant” they must be flexible and constantly evolve, because context in our world of today changes rather rapidly. Do you have confidence that a national standard can develop a process to update on a regular basis and communicate those change on a national scale quickly? Relevant also means real-world tools (technology) and information access (internet) for all students and educators. I contend that relevant is impossible without those tools, but that is a whole ‘nother blog.

Good Idea or Not?
Some would argue that everything proposed above cannot happen right away, so moving to national standards is a good first step. I am skeptical that it only prolongs a horribly flawed system, which on a national level will be even harder to change. I hope I am wrong because with the power organizations’ support, national standards will happen soon.  I also hope that educators will advocate for fewer yet deeper standards (infused with HOTS and 21st century skills), standards for all content areas in all grade levels,  ongoing formative assessments, processes for continual update and evolution, and the technology to support it all. Do you suppose we can get a bank bailout package to pay for doing it right?

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