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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary 1 Policy Context The position that there should be a single set of academic standards in core subjects that states would be encouraged or required to adopt or closely model is not new, but a number of groups have recently advocated it. The discussion surrounding renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has focused new attention on the effects of the current model, in which states adopt widely differing standards. As Judith Rizzo of the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy noted, in explaining the impetus for the workshop series, NCLB has shined a “spotlight on the incredible variability of state test scores, both within and among states.” Several groups, including the Commission on No Child Left Behind, the Education Trust, the Fordham Foundation, and the American Federation of Teachers, have argued in favor of voluntary national, or common, standards as a means of improving both achievement and equity (Goertz, 2007; Massell, 2008). Yet others have argued against common standards on the grounds that states, school districts, and teachers need flexibility to serve their students’ needs and that reaching consensus on the shape and content of common standards—and even on a workable process for establishing that consensus—would be a formidable challenge. Complicating the discussion is the fact that evaluations of existing state standards in core subjects by such groups as Editorial Projects in Education, the Fordham Foundation, and the American Federation of Teachers have found many of them wanting (Editorial Projects in Education, 2008; Gross et al., 2005; American Federation of Teachers, 2003).
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary It should be noted that the general term “standards” is somewhat imprecise. In the context of the workshop it was generally used to refer to both content standards, which describe material that students should be expected to learn, and performance standards, which describe the level of proficiency or mastery expected of students. Most state standards specify both. To support analysis of the conflicting points of view, the committee identified four questions to guide discussion: What are the major roles that standards play in state K-12 education policy and practice? What are the major strengths and weaknesses of K-12 state standards-based reform efforts with respect to achieving efficiency, equity, and quality? What are states doing to achieve these goals? How and to what degree are the strengths and weaknesses of reform efforts related to the standards themselves? How and to what degree have the standards changed other education policies in states? How and to what degree are the strengths and weaknesses of reform efforts related to having unique state standards? For the first session of the workshop, the starting point was a presentation by Diane Massell (2008) on a series of interviews with education policy makers in five states: California, Florida, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Texas. VIEW FROM THE STATES The purpose of Massell’s interviews was to solicit opinions from a range of experienced policy makers who have been engaged in standards-based education reform, the catch all term for measures that states have taken to improve instruction and learning by organizing both policy and practice around clear, measurable standards. Massell and her colleagues hoped to trace both common themes and insights and possible differences, and to flag views that may be developing in response to current events. The five states were chosen to reflect both geographical diversity and diversity of experience with standards. California, which initiated its standards approach during the 1980s, was an early adopter, for example, while North Dakota adopted standards in response to federal requirements in 1994. The 21 interview subjects included officials or education aides from governors’ offices, members of state boards of education, state legislators, and state education agency officials.
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary Massell began by highlighting the current, unprecedented degree of public engagement in the specifics of implementing standards-based systems, particularly the attention focused on the curriculum and instruction that make them concrete. She described standards-based reform as having had the effect of “opening Pandora’s box” because it resulted in a new transparency with regard to curriculum and instruction. Massell was borrowing a phrase from a 1950s report that described districts as reluctant to allow the public to involve itself with potentially divisive questions about what and how children should be taught. Although the minimum competency movement of the 1970s —as well as lawsuits in a number of states intended to force states to equalize school funding—brought increased focus on schools’ accountability to states with regard to what students actually learned, the achievement bar was set relatively low. The standards-based reform movement that developed in response to A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) expanded the role of standards, with a focus on rigorous requirements for high school graduation. As both national organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and individual states began to put forward more detailed statements of what students should be expected to know and be able to do, the concept of systemic reform, suggested by Smith and O’Day (1991), sharpened the focus on how standards might lead to the desired learning. The logic of systemic reform was that the primary elements of an educational system—such as curriculum, instruction, teacher preparation, professional development, and assessment—must all be aligned to carefully developed content and performance standards in order for those standards to affect teaching and learning. In this view, educators would still retain significant flexibility in meeting expectations but be held accountable for the results. In 1994 the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act made standards-based reform the official national approach to public schooling by requiring states to set challenging standards aligned to assessments and accountability measures (Massell, 2008). The testing requirements imposed by NCLB in 2001 built on that commitment, requiring states to (1) publish challenging academic content standards in English/language arts and mathematics for each of grades 3 through 8 and one secondary grade, as well as standards for science in three grades, and (2) assess students in these grades and subjects annually and hold schools accountable for the results (http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/index.html [April 2008]). Those requirements, and the consequences imposed by the law for failing to meet them have meant that parents and others have a significantly increased interest in the precise content of standards, curriculum, the tests used to measure proficiency, and the material covered in classrooms.
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary Massell’s work found intense differences of opinion related to standards. Her interview subjects reported disagreement about how rigorous academic and performance standards are and should be, about whether measures that sharpen accountability also lead to an unacceptable narrowing of the curriculum, and about the fairness of accountability sanctions. Yet despite tension around a number of issues, Massell noted that the leaders she and her colleagues interviewed generally take standards-based reform and accountability for granted, viewing this approach as a “central framework guiding state education policy and practice.” Even the leaders from North Dakota, where standards were adopted largely under federal duress, viewed this approach as a part of the landscape that is not likely to change. The other four states had made a stronger commitment to standards, and the leaders from those states described them in such terms as “even more central over time” and “integral” to policy initiatives. Massell said that opening issues related to curriculum and instruction to public discussion has not had the effect of killing reform, as some may have feared, and the result has been “a surprising degree of agreement regarding the meaning and purpose of education.” The North Dakota respondents were more muted than the others, however. They were less likely to see standards as “central” to policy and tended to describe the effects of standards on classroom practice as marginal. Moreover, respondents from all five states reported that the focus on standards remains variable across and within both states and districts, as do their effects on instruction and learning. Massell explained that the interviewers asked state education leaders for their impressions regarding several aspects of standards based reform, such as its impact on practice, learning opportunities, the quality of education, and resources. The leaders’ responses to these issues generated an array of reactions from workshop discussants and participants. EQUITY The effects of standards-based accountability systems on achievement gaps and equality of opportunity for disadvantaged students was the first specific topic discussed in the interviews. In general, Massell reported, the state leaders believe that standards based reform has led to: greater awareness of and attention to the academic performance of disadvantaged students; the expectation that all students will meet rigorous standards; reductions in achievement gaps; a more uniform educational system (within states); and instruction that is tailored to the needs of individual students.
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary They generally agreed that increased awareness of the performance of all groups may be the most widely recognized accomplishment of standards-based reform, and particularly of the NCLB legislation. Yet both the interview subjects and the workshop participants recognized the challenges of increasing equity in education and the limitations of what has been accomplished. The gaps have not been eliminated, and most agreed that reductions thus far have been fairly modest. Massell noted that according to a study by the Center on Education Policy (2007), gaps in most states remain substantial despite reductions, and some states have seen no reductions. Urban schools—those with the largest proportions of disadvantaged students—are the least likely to be meeting NCLB performance targets. Discussant Brian Stecher reinforced the concern that improvement has been modest, pointing out that “under the threat of severe sanctions from ‘No Child Left Behind,’ there is an unknown amount of inflation in test scores, and what we see in terms of gap closing on state tests is not always replicated in other low-stakes assessments.” Many participants viewed the challenge of providing a truly equitable education for disadvantaged students as a central purpose of standards-based reform. CAPACITY The interview subjects viewed states’ capacity to carry out all the improvements envisioned in standards-based reform as the most significant challenge to improving equity and achieving the other goals of standards-based reform, and workshop participants were quick to agree. The reforms have stretched state agencies and districts significantly during a period in which most have been losing personnel and resources. Massell noted that Massachusetts had 325 full-time staff by when its reforms were enacted into law in 1993, though it had had 990 employees just 13 years earlier. Smaller staffs have been responsible for developing new standards and aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessments to them. Other technical challenges, such as measuring the progress of English language learners in a valid manner, have increased the challenge of implementing the intended reforms. NCLB required support of Title I schools (those serving specified percentages of low-income children) in specific ways. As growing numbers of schools and districts fall short of the NCLB performance targets, the strains on personnel are increasing. Fully 25 percent of schools across the country fell short of adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets in 2004-2005, and the numbers have been increasing since then, although Massell noted that that figure masks significant variation across states. For example, Florida and Alabama report that as many as 67 percent of their schools
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary and 90 percent of their districts would fall short in 2008. Moreover, many states project that a cascading number of schools will be identified as underperforming in the coming years, as the law’s 2014 deadline for having 100 percent of students perform at the proficient levels draws closer. Capacity is critical to making a standards-based system perform as it is intended to. One necessary component of the strategy is data analysis, since, ideally, thoughtful analysis of timely data will guide teachers as they plan instruction; administrators as they plan teaching assignments, professional development, and many other aspects of their schools; and district and state staff as they make decisions about key questions such as curriculum planning and resource allocation. Yet as discussant Brian Stecher and others pointed out, teachers, administrators, and policy makers frequently lack either the training or the time—or both—to use the data they receive wisely. Few teachers have been adequately trained to use data to make improvements in instruction, and the annual testing data that is the most typical product of accountability systems are not particularly useful for that purpose. More broadly, a number of participants stressed that standards-based accountability models provide a structure for identifying problems, but they do not directly address the challenges of bringing about better instruction. There is a risk that the standards-based reform model, and all of the testing and other time and resource intensive activities that are associated with it, may distract educators from one of the central challenges of reform: figuring out how to address the needs of disadvantaged students. As discussant Lynn Olson put it, one benefit of common standards could be to “force us to confront gross inequities,” but educators and the public have known for decades that disadvantaged students are not doing well. QUALITY Building on the capacity issues, participants also discussed the gaps between the ideal model and reality. Discussant Lynn Olson noted that in the evaluation of state standards recently published by Education Week, not one state earned a top score on each of the criteria used, and many scored very poorly in a number of areas (Editorial Projects in Education, 2008). Stecher expanded on this point, arguing that very high standards are needed for the standards themselves. Because everything (including curriculum, textbooks, development of assessments, language for reporting results to the public) flows from the standards, they need not only to be clearly written and concise, but also to reflect current understanding of how children learn and their conceptual development. They also need to provide guidance about the performance criteria for determining whether
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary students have mastered particular standards and guidance about the relative importance of the different elements included. In practice, as the Quality Counts (Editorial Projects in Education, 2008) and other evaluations attest, state standards are not yet meeting those kinds of criteria. In the absence of the guidance that standards should provide, the default source for guidance is the assessment system. As Stecher put it: “We may be drifting toward assessment-based reform, rather than standards-based reform.” Yet the standards themselves may be the best developed aspect of the evolving reform systems. Participants called attention to persistent concerns about the nature, rigor, and quality of the assessments used in many states and about the narrowing effects they can have on curriculum and instruction. For example, few states systematically provide for extensive formative assessments that teachers could use to tailor instruction to individual students’ needs. These kinds of concerns, many noted, suggest the potential benefits to states of greater uniformity among them. States could much more easily take advantage of one another’s knowledge and experience and avoid duplication of effort if they were applying consistent frameworks. This point was reinforced by questions about whether the multiple-standards model has yielded the consistency that was hoped for even within states. Researchers and policy makers from several states suggested that there is far more variation in both content and performance standards in practice than may be evident in states’ written plans. As discussant Rae Ann Kelsch explained: “People are very reluctant to give up control.” Although she spoke on the basis of the experience in North Dakota, which has not embraced standards wholeheartedly, others echoed her view. Standards-based systems have provided a model and a unifying conception of the purpose of education, “but very different goals can exist under the same banner” as one participant put it. Discussant Scott Montgomery said that the problem lies in changing the entire system, not just in unifying the standards, so for him common standards would not necessarily bring the changes that he believes are needed. CURRENT STANDARDS: OVERVIEW Committee chair Lorraine McDonnell reflected that the discussion of standards as they are currently operating yielded two significant paradoxes. The first paradox is that although standards are very well institutionalized across the country, with very few voices challenging their value as an organizing framework for reform, it is also the case that “standards-based reform” means different things to different people. The
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary term in some ways disguises deep-seated differences about both priorities and strategies for achieving education goals. The second paradox is that although there is little ostensible disagreement about the standards-based approach, there is a wide gap between the theoretical model and the reality of standards-based accountability systems in practice. The theoretical model of an aligned system is compelling as a strategy for meeting the needs of diverse students. Yet in practice, states and districts have lacked the capacity, resources, and perhaps in some cases, the knowledge or the will to put all the essential elements in place. Participants described legislators and other policy makers who have viewed the development of a new core curriculum or the raising of high school graduation standards as all that is required to pursue standards-based reform. Disputes over the significance of testing results, and the effects the reporting of these results can have, have further clouded the discussion.