National Standards Effort Moves Ahead, Creates Backlash

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, July 2009

Forty-six states and three territories recently agreed to craft shared, hence national, education standards, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has committed $350 million of federal "Race to the Top" stimulus funds to developing tests based on the new standards. Critics are mobilizing, charging the process will not solve real educational problems, will continue to promote narrow testing approaches, is secretive, and strikes another blow to democratic governance of schools.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, who are coordinating the work, have selected the College Board (sponsors of the SAT), ACT (which produces the nation’s other major college admissions test), and Achieve (which makes tests as well as cheerleads for them) to write the new standards. The expressed goal is that students who attain the standards will be "college and career ready" and successful at a level "benchmarked to international standards." The plan is to have high school graduation standards in July 2009, followed by grade-level standards by the end of the year.

Critics say the process is undemocratic, will usurp both local and state control over education, and will lead to a national test that is likely to reinforce an ossified curriculum focused on test preparation. Others predict the effort will collapse when states actually have to replace their own tests or be swamped by amendments that try to cram "everything and the kitchen sink" into the common standards.

Progressive educator and FairTest Board member Deborah Meier has repeatedly pointed out the flaws in evidence and reasoning behind ever-escalating standardization. She has said, "The standardization movement is not based on a simple mistake. It rests on deep assumptions about the goals of education and the proper exercise of authority in the making of decisions– assumptions we ought to reject in favor of a different vision of a healthy democratic society."

Meier adds the "old truism," "Important decisions regarding kids and teachers should always be based on multiple sources of evidence that seem appropriate and credible to those most concerned."

Conservative Jay Greene observed, "There’d be no more laboratory of the states, just uniform banality." He also cited Bush education advisor Sandy Kress, "[I]t is utterly naive and/or foolish to expect states to jump track from their current gameplans, particularly where they’re reasonably well thought out."

A de facto "left-right" alliance blocked plans by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to create a national exam. Test proponents argue the latest effort is not federal and will be voluntary. However, if the federal government ties significant funding to state participation in the tests, it will become voluntary in name only.

Since this effort is proceeding as a state collaborative backed by federal discretionary funds, work to derail it likely will focus on the quality of the draft standards, then on state adoption processes, and finally on the resulting tests. Issues of educational value and the nature of democratic governance over education will also be raised.

FairTest has long opposed a national exam. Among other things, it will not solve the problems of teaching to the test and narrowing curriculum. Whether high-stakes exams are state or national, districts and schools will focus on them. The tests will become the curriculum for many students. Too many important content and skill areas will be ignored, and results will be inflated by teaching to the test.

If only two subjects "count," as is now the case with No Child Left Behind, curriculum will continue to shrink toward reading and math, especially in schools where few students score high enough. If, however, there are more standardized tests that "count," then every subject runs the risk of reduction to test prep. Educators in social studies, history, science, arts and more find themselves torn between a fear that their subject will be ignored and the threat of test-controlled curriculum and instruction. A national high-stakes exam will not resolve that problem. Improving the quality of local assessments and allowing them to "count" can provide a rational alternative, as the Forum on Educational Accountability proposes (see article, this issue).

Ironically, federal law calls for multiple measures and assessing higher order thinking skills. Even the pro-NCLB Democrats for Education Reform agree the current tests fail to meet these requirements. A national test will not overcome these problems, even if its promoters pretend it will.