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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary 4 Wrap-Up and Next Steps For the workshop’s final session, participants were asked to reflect about the key messages from each of the workshop sessions and to identify topics and issues the committee should address in its second workshop. In preparation for this session, the participants had met in smaller, breakout groups. Each of the breakout groups came up with long lists of important take-away messages, as well as questions they identified for more discussion. There was significant overlap among the groups, who offered many ideas for the committee to consider. VARIABILITY OF STANDARDS There is significant variability among states in the nature of their content standards, what is covered, and the performance levels they set. No clear consensus has emerged in the field as to the effects of the variation, though some view the variation itself as a major impediment to equity. Consistent standards may be a necessary tool for ensuring educational equity, but simply establishing them will not accomplish the goal. More information is needed about why states approach the issue so differently and the effects that these differences have on student learning. The variation in proficiency standards highlights the limitations of a model that focuses on achievement to a particular defined level. Many argue that a growth model (an assessment system that focuses on measuring students’ academic growth over time)
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary may be a more useful approach than a model that provides snapshots of the percentages who have reached a particular level. There may be as much variation in the ways different districts in a state implement standards (perhaps even among classrooms within a school) as there is among states. It is not clear whether common standards for states would reduce this variability. Assessment has become the principal driver of most states’ standards-based reform efforts. The result of this unintended development has been a reduced focus on the broader goals for instruction and learning that are at the heart of standards-based reform as it was originally envisioned. Some states have developed best practices and have built the necessary infrastructure to make them work. Other states can clearly benefit from those experiences. Past efforts to set standards, including contentious efforts in individual disciplines (e.g., U.S. history), more recent efforts (such as Achieve’s focus on Algebra II for all), and the experience of states that have collaborated (e.g., the four New England states) offer valuable background for any plan to push for common K-12 standards. Defining rigor is straightforward if the focus is on the numbers of students who meet a particular proficiency standard at a fixed date, but if states shift their focus to students’ development and learning over time, they will need to develop more flexible learning expectations. Policy makers and educators often have different perspectives on both the goals for reform and the effects of particular reforms in practice. Each group can learn from the other. There are significant practical obstacles to implementing common standards. Careful thought about options and ways to make such a transition, would be needed. For example, to what depth is uniformity necessary? By what process would common standards be developed, and who would be involved? Both teacher quality and focused textbook content are very significant factors that would not be directly addressed by more uniform standards. Without them, no real improvement is likely. COSTS Although the estimated costs of standards-based reform and associated activities are higher than commonly recognized, they are still a minor fraction of education spending, especially relative to their importance.
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary Addressing the many shortfalls in states’ capacity to implement all of the elements of standards based reform would require increased spending. It would be useful to apply the cost framework (presented at the workshop) to additional states—particularly those that have come closest to establishing the infrastructure for systemic reform—to have some data on the costs for addressing the other components of reform. QUESTIONS FOR THE NEXT WORKSHOP What would be necessary to develop a more uniform system of standards? That is, would it be necessary to develop a scholarly rationale for the structure of such a system? Is the research base on the ways in which student learning progresses sufficiently firm to support this effort? Alternatively, many advocate that standards be developed by mapping backward from conceptions of what students need to know to be ready for postsecondary study and careers. This idea raises the question of whether there is a consensus about what high school graduates need to have mastered. Many past efforts to develop standards have been significantly affected by political pressures in the states. How could a system based on common standards be structured so that it is relatively immune to such political pressures at the national level? What can be learned from international comparisons, particularly about countries that have had more success than the United States at producing high levels of achievement for all students, including those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged? CONCLUDING THOUGHTS The reports from the breakout sessions reinforced several common themes from the workshop. There seemed to be wide agreement that standards are now an accepted part of the educational landscape and that they play multiple roles in public education. Moreover, standards are seen as very important—and the need to improve them is seen as critical—because they are viewed as a means of achieving educational equity. However, neither the precise role that standards play nor their effects have been adequately documented. One reason for the lack of clear answers about the effects of standards is that it is not completely clear that standards, and standards-based reform, have consistent definitions. It is clear that states’ approaches to
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Assessing the Role of K-12 Academic Standards in States: Workshop Summary standards vary in many critical ways, not least in quality. Presenters and participants cited rigor, specificity, focus, and coherent learning progressions as critical aspects of high-quality standards, but there is no widely shared conception of quality or of the essential components of standards-based reform. The variability in the implementation of standards-based reforms among states may reflect the lack of consensus about what good standards look like. Some noted, for example, that there is no obvious relationship between the coverage of content and performance on common measures, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Others viewed the variation as an absolutely critical obstacle to the equality of opportunity that is a key goal of standards-based reform efforts. In some ways, assessments and proficiency scores have come to stand in for academic content standards, but few see this as a positive development. Many people believe that test-based accountability has made the goal of “proficiency” dwarf far more important education goals. Poor student outcomes should raise questions about the adequacy of curriculum, instruction, classroom materials, the structure of the school day and year, leadership, and other factors in education. Thus, for example, the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 may be far less useful than establishing firm standards for states related to students’ opportunity to learn. Many participants shared the view that standards are a necessary, but not sufficient, component of systemic reform. The original theory of action was that if standards, assessments, and accountability systems were in place, everything else that needed to happen would follow. It seems clear now that this formulation was incomplete—that it left out two critical factors. First, it did not directly address teaching itself and the mechanisms through which teachers would adapt their instruction. Second, it did not address the need for political will to address the disparities in the educational opportunities offered to students in different settings by making the needed broader changes. The lack of will to push beyond the mechanics of standards documents and assessments and make fundamental changes in the way diverse students are served seems to be the reason that systemic reform has not been fully implemented in any state. Strategies for building on what has been accomplished through standards-based reform, such as a push for common standards, will need to take on those issues if they are to make a meaningful difference.