National Education Standards: To Be or Not to Be?
- Tom Ewing
- Tom Ewing
Princeton, N.J. (July 23, 2009) —
With another drive for national education standards gathering steam, a new publication from Educational Testing Service (ETS), reviews the debate, details previous and current efforts, discusses the challenges and explores avenues for moving the nation toward greater commonality.
The report, National Education Standards: Getting Beneath the Surface, is the latest in a regular series of Policy Perspectives from ETS's Policy Information Center, and is written by noted educational researcher Paul Barton. The report covers issues such as: what must be considered in creating national education standards, what problems must be addressed, and what trade-offs might be required among conflicting objectives.
"The most daunting issue," says Barton, "is the huge degree of variation that now exists in our educational system." For example, Barton points out that:
- States set very different standards to determine student proficiency. According to North Carolina's standards, 88 percent of the state's eighth-graders are "proficient" on its state National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scale while neighboring South Carolina sets a much higher bar, resulting in only 30 percent of its eighth-graders reaching this level.
- In student achievement, the lowest scoring 17-year-olds do no better in math and reading than the top scoring 9-year-olds. In addition, the spread in achievement scores in reading within a grade is as large, or larger, than the difference in average scores between grades 4 and 12.
- Evaluations of the state content standards and tests by the Fordham Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers found large variations in quality. Even when states teach the same material from the first to the eighth grade, they may teach the material at different grades.
- A review of the textbooks used in 10 states showed that only four of 108 possible learning expectations for fourth-graders were common across those states.
While there is increasing advocacy for creating common or national standards, there is seldom any detail given about the nature of the standards sought, Barton contends. "Some want federal standards and others national. Some talk about the content of instruction, some about a national test, and some about both. Certain groups push for voluntary standards and others for a single cut-point on a test that can be used for accountability. People are speaking from different pages and it will be necessary to get on the same page before there can be significant progress," says Barton.
Getting everyone on the same page is one of the goals of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Initiative, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA), is a state-led process to develop two sets of common core state standards in English-language arts and mathematics: one for grades K–12, and one for college students and the workforce. The standards will be research- and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills.
"This is no longer a debate — it is a necessity. The development of a common core of state standards builds directly on recent efforts of leading organizations and states that have focused on developing college- and career-ready standards and ensures that these standards can be internationally benchmarked to top-performing countries," stated CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit. "The common core state standards will be fewer, clearer, and higher, making them more accessible to educators, students, parents, and the public."
The report reviews the nation's recent history with standards and testing and identifies some lessons that can be learned to avoid past mistakes. For example, the current system of content standards, curriculum and tests does not tie the components together in most states. The report also:
- Describes the on-going and significant disagreements over the best methods to teach math and reading, and points out topics, such as evolution, where we can expect even more controversy. Can these differences be accommodated in national standards?
- Points out that much of what we know about the courses that students take is limited to course titles — Algebra 1, for example. Yet, the content of an algebra course can vary tremendously across schools.
- Looks at ways federal funding can be used to develop common standards without federal control.
- Offers some ways to greater utilize NAEP, which currently serves as the nation's report card.
"There seems to be widespread dissatisfaction with the present system," says Barton. "As the Secretary of Education put it, ‘we have 50 different goal posts now.' However, this is not an advocacy document but an effort to help people who are grappling with the issue by providing information that can help."
Download National Education Standards: Getting Beneath the Surface free at www.ets.org/research/pic. Copies also are available by writing to the Policy Information Center, c/o ETS, MS 19-R, Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08541-0001; by calling 1-609-734-5694; or by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
At nonprofit ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually — including the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® test and The Praxis Series™ assessments — in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide. www.ets.org