3
Considering the Options

The descriptive picture of standards as they are currently operating provided important background for the discussion, but in order to examine the pros and cons of a move to common standards, the committee wanted also to consider the relative merits of specific aspects of states’ approaches. The terms “standards” and “standards-based reform” are loosely used to refer to complex sets of policies, practices, and documents that states use to define performance expectations, and it seems fair to say that each state has devised a unique variation on this theme. While the existence of so many distinct approaches may present problems, a persuasive case might be made for the superiority of any one of them. Devising a set of common standards would entail making a series of choices among competing approaches. Fundamental to that task would be a way to understand the primary characteristics that distinguish one approach from another, as well as a way of evaluating the pros and cons of competing options.

The committee developed a two-part framework for keeping track of the many moving parts in an analysis of options for common standards. The first part addresses the primary options or policy choices; the second part addresses criteria for evaluating the options. The primary policy choices to be made include:

  • identifying a process for agreeing on common standards;

  • determining the intended scope of the standards across subjects, grades, and states; and

  • determining how the standards will be implemented.



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3 Considering the Options T he descriptive picture of standards as they are currently operating provided important background for the discussion, but in order to examine the pros and cons of a move to common standards, the committee wanted also to consider the relative merits of specific aspects of states’ approaches. The terms “standards” and “standards-based reform” are loosely used to refer to complex sets of policies, practices, and docu- ments that states use to define performance expectations, and it seems fair to say that each state has devised a unique variation on this theme. While the existence of so many distinct approaches may present prob- lems, a persuasive case might be made for the superiority of any one of them. Devising a set of common standards would entail making a series of choices among competing approaches. Fundamental to that task would be a way to understand the primary characteristics that distinguish one approach from another, as well as a way of evaluating the pros and cons of competing options. The committee developed a two-part framework for keeping track of the many moving parts in an analysis of options for common standards. The first part addresses the primary options or policy choices; the second part addresses criteria for evaluating the options. The primary policy choices to be made include: • identifying a process for agreeing on common standards; • etermining the intended scope of the standards across subjects, d grades, and states; and • etermining how the standards will be implemented. d 2

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2 COMMON STANDARDS FOR K-12 EDUCATION? The committee developed the graphic representation of these choice points shown in Figure 3-1. The graphic is structured to emphasize that possibilities in each of these areas exist along a continuum, and that in practice the categories might be blended in innovative ways. Any number of factors might also influence decisions about the devel- opment process, the scope, and the implementation, but most are likely to be subsumed under four primary categories: quality, equity, feasibility, and opportunity cost. The committee therefore developed a second com- ponent to the framework to guide discussion of how one might evaluate competing approaches to common standards, shown in Table 3-1. The framework was intended simply as a guide to discussion, to ensure that key elements were not overlooked. Participants referred back to it frequently but also pointed out several elements that it does not take into account. The forward momentum of institutions that are already in place is one factor that is not addressed—particularly the assessment and accountability structures at the state and federal levels, which are likely to have a powerful influence over any changes that could be made to standards. As one participant put it, “the standards conversation could get trapped by the problem of how and what you measure—so that has to be on the table from the start.” Another pointed out that policy change rarely takes place according to logical frameworks, and that a bottom-up push, perhaps stimulated by the examples set by independent groups, such as the advanced placement or international baccalaureate programs, could end up influencing the outcome significantly.

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2 CONSIDERING THE OPTIONS FIGURE 3-1 Draft options framework.

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0 COMMON STANDARDS FOR K-12 EDUCATION? TABLE 3-1 Evaluation Framework • Effects on the quality of the standards themselves, such Quality as their clarity, comprehensiveness, and developmental appropriateness. • Effects on the quality of other components of the education system, such as assessments, curriculum, textbooks/materials, the accountability system, and the teacher workforce. • Effects on outcomes, such as student achievement and graduation rates. • Effects on expectations for student learning, as embodied in Equity content and performance standards. • Effects on equity of components of the education system, as reflected in funding, teachers, placement, opportunity to learn, other factors. • Effects on outcomes, such as achievement gap, differential dropout rates. • Political feasibility of moving toward common standards. Feasibility • Cost of moving toward common standards. • Capacity requirements to move toward common standards. Opportunity cost Evaluation of what might be lost if policy attention focuses on common standards at the expense of alternative policy options, such as improving No Child Left Behind, improving teacher preparation, etc.