New Page, Old Lesson

Iin
February of 1997, when Bill Clinton made national school standards and
testing a centerpiece of his second-term domestic program, it became one of the
biggest applause lines of his State of the Union address. What could be more
self-evident for a nation convinced that its schools, if not actually failing,
were running a poor second (or third, or tenth) behind Japan, behind Singapore,
behind Taiwan, behind Korea—and that if something weren't done, our economic
competitors, with better-educated people and more highly skilled workers, would
beat our brains out [see "Are U.S. Students Behind?"]? Tests
geared to national norms—or better yet, world standards—would inform parents
about how well, or how badly, their kids were really doing. No more Lake Wobegon
effect; no more false optimism from local school administrators trying to look
good.

Nonetheless, no one should be surprised that Clinton's proposal for voluntary
national tests—reading in the fourth grade and math in the eighth—is now in deep
trouble. Only seven states have committed themselves to the President's testing
program, and even some of them are said to be having second thoughts. More
important, Congress, pressed by both the left and right, has put a moratorium on
further federal spending for national testing and blocked any field trials of

the tests until at least this fall. Congress has also commissioned the National
Research Council to study the possibility of creating a device that would permit
the scores on the standardized tests now used in many states and school
districts to be equated into a single score, thus obviating the need for any new
national tests. And it has wrested to itself the power to authorize any testing
program. National testing, said House Appropriations chairman Robert L.
Livingston last November, has been stopped "in its tracks."

For Clinton—and for Al Gore, who might have to run on, and live with, the
consequences of Clinton's program—that could be a blessing in disguise, not only
because of the technical and ideological booby traps buried in the actual
testing proposal and the bitter political and pedagogical fights it will
generate if the tests are ever given, but because of the broader national
ambivalence about tough academic demands against which those problems will
resonate. Do we really want a system that is demanding, meritocratic, and
characterized by high expectations in such things as college admission for
students, pay for teachers, and promotions for administrators? Or would we
prefer an egalitarian system of perpetual second chances and endless opportunity
for all comers? We pay great lip service to standards. We become far more timid
and divided when they stare us in the face.


TOUGH STANDARDS, TOUGH CONSEQUENCES

When Clinton's testing proposal ran into trouble, Chester Finn, who was
assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, remarked that the
right doesn't like anything with the word "national" and the left
doesn't like anything with the word "testing." But in fact, similar
battles are being waged in the states, both over testing programs and standards
and over consequences. As the late Al Shanker, longtime president of the
American Federation of Teachers, used to point out, having tough academic
standards without consequences is pretty meaningless. Yet real consequences for
children are not something Americans are very comfortable with. It is one of the
glories of the American system that higher education is so widely accessible.
But this very accessibility will also forever undermine the institution of
really tough school standards—if the standards for advancement and acceptance
are raised, a post-high school education might no longer be so accessible.
What's more, higher standards could have a demotivating effect on a significant
portion of the school-going population.

Dozens of states—from New York to Colorado, from Florida and Wisconsin to
Texas and California—have been trying to upgrade their own standards, often in
conjunction with new tests. Although some new standards, such as those in
Virginia, have been widely praised, there is no way to know how well they will
ultimately be accepted, nor how much difference they will make. And while the
larger menu of serious academic courses gradually imposed in many states in the
1980s has almost certainly had an effect in raising academic achievement, those
reforms were mild compared with what's being proposed now. As higher education
standards become the educational corollary of the wave of tough-on-crime
legislation that marked the late 1980s and early 1990s, the race is on to
determine who can back the most demanding academic requirements with the most
uncompromising consequences, regardless of the schools' ability to implement
them or parents' willingness to accept the ultimate results.



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In New York last November, the regents, with little study or debate, approved
a regulation requiring every student to take three years of a foreign language
and pass a state exam in that language in order to graduate from high school. In
the face of widespread protests, the rule was quickly rescinded. People thought,
said Carl T. Hayden, the chancellor of the 16-member board, "that we were
bereft of our senses." But another new rule, under which every student will
have to pass the same state regents exams in English, math, science, history,
and social studies now required only for the 40 percent of New York graduates
who receive regents diplomas—meaning generally those who intend to go to
college—remains in place. Even if all students were capable of passing those
tests, where would the teachers come from? (And if all passed, what sort of
standard would it be?) In New York, as in other states, the full impact of the
requirements will not be felt for some time: They were safely deferred, and will
only go into effect for those graduating in the year 2004, by which time many of
those who voted for them will, like the Washington politicians who backload
budget cuts, be elsewhere. But since state education commissioner Richard Mills
is already proposing to give regents exams in Spanish, Haitian-Creole, Russian,
Chinese, and Korean, and since during a "transitional period," the
passing grade will be 55 (on a scale of 100) instead of 65, and students will
have six hours instead of three to take the exam, the drift seems clear. In the
end, this may not turn out to be a toughening of standards for all students so
much as a watering-down for the best.

In Michigan last year, more than half the juniors in the exclusive suburb of
Birmingham, nearly all college-bound, opted out of the state's new High School
Proficiency Test—they got waivers designed for those with "severe
disabilities"—because they and their parents saw only risks, not benefits,
in taking it. In the working-class town of Muskegon Heights, school officials
urged parents of seventh graders to ask for waivers on another state test
because their children were not likely to do well and would thus suffer damage
to their self-esteem.

T
he hazards may be even clearer in California, where the legislature
and governor enacted a series of bills over the past couple of years calling for
statewide standards in a whole range of fields and instituting a multiplicity of
state testing programs. As might be expected, there has been no end of battles
between the state education establishment and the politically appointed state
board of education, each of them bolstered by legions of experts, over what
those standards should entail.

Should math, for example, focus on what some people call math facts—rote
learning of the multiplication tables, memorization of geometric theorems and
formulas—or should it include a large dose of problem solving,
conceptualization, and "constructivist" math, allowing children to
"discover" the basic principles of mathematics for themselves? In what
grade should the use of calculators first be permitted? To what extent should
math instruction in the middle and upper grades be "integrated"—meaning
that algebra and geometry are taught not in the traditional way as
discrete subjects (with algebra in one year and geometry in another) but
combined over two or three years?

In the teaching of reading, to what extent should the focus in the early
grades be almost exclusively on phonemic awareness, on phonics, on spelling, and
on the other structural basics involved in decoding words and sentences, and to
what degree should it tolerate, perhaps even encourage, invented spelling and
reliance on context, including pictures and other "whole language"
devices, in order to foster reading for pleasure and understanding as soon as
possible?

The thoughtful people in the various disciplines argue endlessly, and quite
reasonably, that these are not either-or propositions. But sweet reason rarely
informs these disputes between true believers in what often seems more like a
religious war than a disagreement over academic emphasis. Regardless of who
prevails, the other party will wage guerrilla war on its policies—in the
legislature, in the classroom and in the schools of education, and sometimes in
the courts—until the climate changes. In the early 1980s, the pendulum swung
toward the basics; in the late 1980s, it swung toward comprehension and problem
solving. Now it swings back. Plus ça change. Recently in
California, an official state commission proposed a new set of elementary school
math standards (which were touted as "world-class" because they were
allegedly copied from those of Japan and Singapore, this year's fashion plates
in education). When the conservative state board of education, which is supposed
to have the last word in the process, tinkered with the standards to make them
more precise and testable, the elected state superintendent of schools, a liberal Democrat, issued a loud public letter accusing the board of
"dumbing [the standards] down." In the end, of course, the board does
not have the last word. It is the bureaucrats, the teachers, and the parents.
The longest distance in the world is between an official state curriculum policy
paper and what goes on in a child's mind.

N
ot surprisingly, similar battles are being fought over the testing
programs. To what extent should the test be an "authentic assessment"
focusing on problem solving, constructed answers to open-ended questions, and
other "performance-based" measures—student portfolios, including
artwork and essays done during the course of a class—and to what extent should
it comprise only "objective" multiple-choice fill-in-the-bubble
answers to specific questions? Should the testing programs generate individual
scores, as well as average scores for schools, districts, and perhaps individual
classrooms? Or should testing be strictly a diagnostic instrument to be used by
teachers and parents to determine a student's strengths and weaknesses? Should
the test be based only on the standards established for that state or district,
or should it be founded on broader "world-class" criteria? Should it
be given only in English, or should it also be given in the primary language of
children who have been in this country three years or less, or five years or
less? And who, besides the severely handicapped, should be excused?

In the battle over Clinton's testing program last year, the last two
questions were major issues for organizations like MALDEF, the Mexican-American
Legal Defense and Education Fund, just as they are issues in states like
California, New York, and Texas, with their large and growing proportions of
limited-English-speaking children. A number of big-city districts, among them
Los Angeles, Houston, and El Paso, have announced that they will not participate
in Clinton's reading test because it will not be given in Spanish. In
California, where a new state law requires that all students be given a battery
of standardized tests beginning in the spring of 1998, a group of urban school
superintendents threatened to sue the state in the federal courts, charging that
the test discriminates against minorities and violates federal civil rights
laws. Meanwhile, organizations like FairTest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, argue—sometimes
with considerable success in the courts or before civil rights
agencies—that virtually all objective, short-answer tests, from the SAT down,
don't measure what they pretend to measure and therefore are inherently unfair
and distort teaching and curricula.


DEFINING THE SAT DOWN

Education reform is in fact heading simultaneously in diametrically opposite
directions. While the political push in the K-12 schools is toward more
conservative "tough" standards, with the tests to back them up, public
universities are moving away from test-based criteria in their admissions
process, or have already done so. The galvanizing force in both directions is
the raft of new legal prohibitions against the use of race-based affirmative
action in university admissions, either because of state law and governing board
policies (as in California, where both Proposition 209, passed by the voters in 1996,
and a regents decision adopted in 1995 now bar all race-based criteria) or
because of a federal court order (as in Texas, where a three-judge panel of the
Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Hopwood v. Texas, did the same thing).

In both Texas and California, affirmative action had been written into
numerical admissions formulas—generally a combination of grade point average and
test scores—to mitigate their negative effect on the ability of blacks and
Latinos to get into the more selective public institutions such as Berkeley,
UCLA, and the University of Texas Law School. In Texas's case, the law school
had created a whole separate admissions system to get minority enrollment up.

But once these states were precluded from considering race, they were
confronted with rapidly declining minority enrollments in their most selective
institutions—what College Board president Donald M. Stewart called "a
potential wipeout that could take away an entire generation." Thus both
states have embarked on a search for other means of maintaining ethnic
diversity. In Texas, the governor and legislature enacted a law last year
requiring the state university system to accept the top 10 percent of the
graduates of all Texas high schools, regardless of their SAT scores, thereby
ensuring that at least some students from heavily Latino high schools, for
example, will gain admission. California, whose ethnic politics vis-à-vis
Latinos in recent years have been far less tolerant, and whose premier state
university campuses are far more selective, is not likely to go that same road.
Nonetheless, similar legislation, requiring the University of California to
admit the top graduates of every California high school, regardless of their
records and regardless of the academic rigor of the school, is already pending.
Meanwhile, official UC committees are searching for ways to change the
admissions formula, not to raise standards, but to preserve diversity.

In virtually every case, downgrading the SAT is high on the list of possible
options. In the fall of 1997, when the official UC president's Task Force on
Latino Eligibility urged the university to drop the SAT altogether, UC president
Richard Atkinson called it "an interesting" proposal worthy of
consideration. (Among other things, the task force said, the change would
increase the number of Hispanics eligible for UC enrollment by about 50
percent.) And while UC is not likely to drop the SAT altogether, Berkeley's
highly selective Boalt Hall Law School, faced with a sharp drop in minority
enrollment (not to mention the threat of a federal civil rights investigation)
has already ended its practice of weighing applicants' grade point averages
according to the academic competitiveness and rigor of the institution that the
applicant attended. Henceforth, a B in cross-cultural studies from a state
teachers college is worth the same as a B in math or economics from MIT. Thus
while one set of state educational institutions is laboring mightily to develop
a tough testing program, another is looking for ways to downgrade the
consequences of weak grades and low test scores. FairTest, which keeps track of
such things, now counts some 280 colleges that don't require the SAT for
admission, a number that has increased by nearly a third during the past three
years.

T
here are other signs of the dilution of standards. Two years ago,
under pressure from a federal civil rights complaint, the College Board revised
the PSAT (the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), the junior version of the
SAT, principally by adding an "expanded" writing skills section in
order to raise the scores of the girls who take it and thus increase the
percentage who get National Merit Scholarships, which are largely based on PSAT
scores. Meanwhile, the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT
and many other university admissions tests, and which used to defend them
vehemently, is issuing statements warning against overreliance on the tests and
explaining that "equating scores with merit . . . supports a mythology that
is not consistent with the reality of data."

At the same time, almost unnoticed in yet another arena, a group of minority
educators in California is in a federal appeals court pursuing its challenge
against a state law requiring all public school teachers and administrators to
pass CBEST, the California Basic Educational Skills Test. Requiring that
teachers pass the test is supposed to ensure that those who go into the
classroom are at least as proficient in math, reading, and writing as the
average tenth grader is expected to be. The plaintiffs in the case, among them
some veteran school administrators who are not too embarrassed to disclose that
they failed the test (which most eighth graders can probably pass) six or eight
times, assert that the test has a disparate impact on minorities. Because it is
not precisely job related—presumably guidance counselors don't need to know
elementary algebra and gym teachers don't need to read much—they claim it's
discriminatory and violates federal law. The state, arguing that teachers
should, at the very least, not be models of ignorance in the things all students
are supposed to master, has already prevailed in a lower court. But the fact
that the challenge is still being pursued after nearly a decade of litigation
ought to give some indication of how hard it is to upgrade anything in American
education.


DOUBLE STANDARDS

Predictably, admissions officers are searching for alternative ways of
assessing university and professional-school applicants. But in an era when both
policymakers and the courts are systematically rolling back the race-based
criteria that had been used to get around the large gaps separating black and
Latino test scores from white and Asian scores, the real issue is that virtually
any set of academic criteria that produce an undesirable social result are
likely sooner or later to come under attack as unfair or inadequate.

Moreover, virtually any test will run into pre-existing divisions between the
party of hard-nosed phonics, math facts, and other basics, and the liberal
reformers, particularly those in teacher-training institutions and states'
departments of education, who believe that only open-ended questions, creative
answers, and other performance-based assessments provide a true picture of a
student's ability.

These issues are compounded further by the administrative difficulties
inherent in any large-scale high-consequence testing program—the dangers of
widespread cheating, the question of who may be excused, the cost of producing
and testing multiple forms of the test to increase security and make certain
that next year's students (or those who take the make-up exam this year) can't
be drilled with specific questions and answers. These are not hypothetical
problems. Almost every day brings yet another report about some breach of test
security—in some cases just an individual teacher or principal changing test
results; in some, as on the qualifying exam administered by the Educational
Testing Service that is given to would-be school principals in Louisiana,
wholesale cheating by hundreds of candidates over long periods of time. That the
cheaters were all people aspiring to be leaders in the state's public school
system made the case, reported in extensive detail by the New York Times
last fall, all the more telling.

Judging from the battles of the past decade, it appears that, on the national
front anyway, we're stuck in an endless cycle. In the abstract, the notion of
higher standards and better testing generally promoted by educational
conservatives is widely embraced: Who can be against higher standards and more
reliable tests? But as the tests are developed and actually given, the tenor
changes. The current fight over Clinton's standards and tests comes on the heels
of the fight over the development of federally sponsored model content standards
in various fields, from English to history to mathematics, prompted first by the
Bush administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As soon as some of those
standards were published—the history standards produced by Gary B. Nash and his
associates at UCLA were the most notorious example—they were loudly repudiated
by the very people who had first sponsored them. It was Lynne Cheney, chairman
of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who had strongly encouraged and
helped fund the history standards. As soon as a draft appeared, Cheney, soon
followed by a virtually unanimous U.S. Senate, denounced them as fatally tainted
with a political revisionism that devoted more attention to the depredations and
minority victims of American history and expansion than to American achievements
and heroes. The draft standards for English were so suffused with jargon and
platitude that the federal government stopped the funding before the project was
finished. Ultimately the history standards were revised to restore more
traditional elements, but by then the fight had fatally undercut the attempt to
craft national standards in this fashion. It was Cheney who in 1991 urged the
development of national tests in science, history, and other major subjects; it
was her fellow Republicans in Congress who led the charge against even the mild
version of testing that Clinton proposed last year.


COMING FULL CIRCLE

With Clinton's proposal for national tests—and thus standards—in reading and
math, the circle is coming around again; indeed, it's in its second phase, since
national standards had also been at the heart of Clinton's all-but-forgotten
Goals 2000 program (which was itself an echo of a much-ballyhooed Bush
administration initiative). The tests are supposed to be based on the National
Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a set of exams in various fields—from
math and science to reading and history—that have been given to a sample of
American students for the better part of 30 years. Launched in the Kennedy-Johnson
years, NAEP was to give the nation a report card on how well, on
average, its students were doing. Over those years, it developed a reputation as
the gold standard of testing, and its results were widely cited in the larger
debate over the performance of U.S. schools. But NAEP was never designed to
provide individual scores, and was never pegged to any "world-class"
standard. Indeed, because of fears of federal meddling in state and local
curricula, the initial NAEP frameworks were purposely mushed so that no one
could ever charge that they might be the first step toward a federal
curriculum.

In the years since, the tests have been revised and tinkered with (most
recently to provide average state scores in reading and math), although the full
test has never been made public. NAEP has thus become, in the words of one
critic, "an ever-expanding black box with contents that are thoroughly
understood by an ever-shrinking number of specialists."

But if the new tests are developed along the NAEP model, and if their full
contents are disclosed each year after they're given, as Clinton proposes, it
may not be just conservatives who will see red. Because some of the items ask
students to disclose personal experiences and feelings—for example, "How is
this story like or different from your own personal experience?"—and
because the framework on which the test is based is full of whole language
assumptions about good readers having "positive attitudes about reading and
positive self-perceptions of themselves as readers," a lot of people may
wonder what such items have to do with the testing of reading skills.

For many teachers and parents, such questions and assumptions may seem all
too familiar. But in California five years ago similar questions led to a loud
public battle and, ultimately, to the scuttling of an ambitious new performance-based
state testing program called CLAS. Conversely, any test composed
predominantly of hard-nosed, fact-based questions will generate quick opposition
from people like Bob Schaeffer of FairTest who regard such items not only as
inadequate measures of student achievement, but as a regressive force pushing
public schools back to a basics-only menu of rote learning. Meanwhile, many
testing professionals worry that if the Clinton program crashes as CLAS did, it
may not only destroy the credibility of NAEP but undermine confidence in testing
generally. Last year, the worry was great enough that the test publishers, who
one would expect to benefit hugely from a national program, worked diligently
behind the scenes to get Congress to delay or even stop it. Clinton and
Education Secretary Richard Riley, in their efforts to generate support for the
testing proposal, still argue that there is nothing inherently controversial
about it. "Reading is reading," they often say, "and math is
math." But in America, you'd better not bet on it.



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