ACHIEVING THE GOALS OF STANDARDS-BASED REFORM
Standards-based education is a relatively new phenomenon in America. In 1983, in response to national concerns that students in America were not learning enough to compete in a global economy and that there was an intolerable gap between the achievement of minority and non-minority students, Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), urged states to learn from other high-achieving countries and set high and rigorous standards for all children and do what was necessary to make sure that they all had an opportunity to achieve them.
The AFT recognized that such a reform addressed both equity and excellence concerns facing public education. It could assure that no student was left behind, that all students had a rigorous curriculum and that more could be achieved by students and by schools. Setting high, clear standards for all students makes it much more difficult to sustain a two-tier education system "with one level of education provided to poor children and another level provided to everyone else. Without standards, "substandard" work is almost impossible to define. As a result, states and school districts may fail to acknowledge students" problems and evade the responsibility for providing the academic supports necessary for high student achievement.
The AFT understands that a complex, coherent and sustained effort at school improvement is necessary to achieve the goals of standards-based reform. States and districts must:
- Develop high-level content and performance standards for what students should know and be able to do.
- Develop curricula aligned with the standards.
- Develop the capacity of schools and teachers to help students meet the high standards.
- Develop new assessments aligned with the new standards and curriculum.
- Develop an incentive and accountability system that uses the results of assessments and other variables to provide intervention to school systems and schools that fail to move their students toward high standards.
- Phase in an incentive and accountability system based, in part, on assessment results.
The State of Standards-Based Reform
While much still needs to be done, America is making progress toward a standards-based system. According to Making Standards Matter 1999, the AFT's annual survey of state progress on standards:
- every state in the nation, with the exception of Iowa, has raised its standards for academic content;
- all but three states have committed to measuring student achievement toward the standards;
- 23 states have or are developing incentives (advanced diplomas, free college tuition) to motivate students to achieve at higher standards; and
- 29 states require and fund academic intervention programs for students who are struggling to meet the standards.
Despite this progress, we are still far from "a coherent and sustained effort at school improvement." In too many instances, states and districts have paid more attention to the development of "gotcha" assessments than to improving the quality of teaching and learning. And states have imposed high-stakes assessments without developing curriculum to support the standards, allocating extra resources and supports to students and schools struggling to meet the standards, and implementing professional development for teachers.
Let us be clear. Assessment is an integral part of standards-based reform. Well-designed tests can provide an objective measure of how well students are doing and provide youngsters with a strong incentive to study hard and do well. However, it is important to remember that in a standards-based system, the primary purpose of assessments is not to sort "winners" from "losers" it is to ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed at the next level and to trigger assistance for those who would otherwise fall through the cracks.
Research confirms the positive effects of curriculum-based assessments coupled with fair incentives, particularly for poor children. Indeed, several U.S. and international studies show that fair incentives can help to improve instruction, target resources to underachievers, and focus attention on and raise the performance of the lowest achievers. Indeed, despite some of the limitations in current implementation of standards-based reforms, we have begun to see improvement in student achievement:
- According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, reading scores for 9-year-olds in the nation's highest-poverty schools (those with 75 percent or more students in poverty) increased by almost 8 percentage points between 1992 and 1999 almost one full grade level.
- More students are taking and passing challenging academic courses. Between 1982 and 1994, the proportion of U.S. high school students who took Algebra I increased from about 20 percent to more than 65 percent. At the same time, the proportion of African-American youngsters taking Algebra II rose about 20 percentage points.
- Fewer students are dropping out than in the 1970s and 1980s' the improvement is especially striking for black students; and
- Scores are up on both SAT and ACT exams, as are student test scores in many of our most troubled school districts.
Despite public support for standards-based reform and rising achievement rates, there are implementation concerns that need attention now. In too many instances, school officials are pursuing standards as just another top-down reform, divorced from the needs and realities of the classroom. States and districts are paying too little attention to developing the curriculum necessary for achieving the standards. The necessary professional development and supports for children at risk are too often unavailable, and where available, may be of questionable quality. And, tests unrelated to the standards and curriculum are being imposed with consequences to students, teachers and schools.
While concerns about implementation take many forms, a central issue has been the inadequacies of the tests, particularly when they are used for high-stakes accountability. In several regions of the country, a backlash against high-stakes testing has begun to develop. In Michigan and Massachusetts, for example, a few students recently launched boycotts of their high school exams, saying that the tests were unfair measures of achievement. Critics have questioned whether high-stakes tests discriminate against poor and minority students. And, according to the executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, that state's assessment system was implemented in a manner that was logically backward: "testing first, training teachers second, and purchasing new books and teaching materials third." This situation is not unique to Virginia.
If we want every student to reach higher standards, states and school districts must pay more attention to proper implementation. Sufficient resources must be available to get the job done. Teachers must understand what the standards are and how to teach to them. They must be provided professional development that focuses on deep content knowledge, clear instructional strategies, and the assessment tools necessary for determining student progress toward meeting the standards. Tests must be aligned with the standards and curriculum. They must define responsible levels of acceptable performance. And most important, students who are having a hard time meeting the standards must get the help they need and get it early. Where these essential supports are missing as they are in too many states failure rates are excessive and students and their parents have become frustrated and angry. If these problems persist, the promise of standards-based reform will remain unmet.
Given the current context for the development and implementation of standards-based reforms and high-stakes assessments and accountability systems, in particular, the AFT recommends:
In regard to standards, states should:
- Explain and justify the standards they set and the performance levels they require for meeting them. Parents and teachers rightly ask: "Is the standard realistic?" States should compare their standards, assessment and results with those of high-performing countries and with credible exams in the United States e.g., Advanced Placement tests, Achieve benchmarks, International Baccalaureate and the like.
- Provide examples of standards and of student work at various grade and performance levels so that teachers, students, parents and the public have a shared understanding of what is expected.
In regard to curricula, states should:
- Involve teachers in the development of curriculum aligned to the standards in the core areas of language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.
- Provide guidance and support to schools so that they attend to and integrate important areas of the curriculum that often are not the focus of standardized testing e.g., art, music, foreign languages.
- Develop a data bank that includes the standards, curricula materials and exemplary lessons and student work related to instruction in the standards.
In regard to professional development, states should:
- Provide resources to assure that all children, especially those in high-poverty areas, have properly trained and credentialed teachers and that they get the added support and time they need to meet the standards.
- Align professional development to the curriculum and the standards.
- Provide additional funding for the development of quality professional development programs that reflect high academic standards and best classroom practice.
- Insure that professional development is based upon what we know works best e.g., professional development is embedded in the workday, takes place mainly in the classroom and school, is peer driven and content focused.
- Work with districts and the teachers union to find the time, resources and effective delivery systems to ensure that all members of the school's instructional staff including teachers, specialists and classroom paraprofessionals have access to the supports they need to help all students master more demanding standards.
In regard to assessments and their use, states should:
- Adhere to the principles of a standards-based education system by basing their assessments, especially individual student assessments, directly on the academic standards and corresponding curricula that teachers are expected to teach and students to learn; aligning relevant professional development with the knowledge, skills, and instructional strategies the standards call for; and putting in place timely support systems and other interventions for students who are struggling.
- Phase in the "stakes" related to tests on a timetable that corresponds with implementing the above minimum requirements of a valid, reliable, accurate, and fair standards-based assessment system, thereby ensuring that school systems have provided students the means to learn the knowledge and skills they are accountable for mastering.
- Recognize that testing children below grade three is legitimate and beneficial for diagnostic and instructional purposes only.
- Give students appropriate supports and multiple opportunities before they realize the consequences of high-stakes tests.
- Resist efforts both to make new assessments and/or their pass scores or minimum performance level so low that they defeat the aims of the standards movement or, conversely, to make them so challenging that most students, including highly accomplished ones, will fail to meet standards, which would also jeopardize the aims and accomplishments of the standards movement. Instead, establish benchmarks for different levels of student performance on assessments in a way that raises both the floor and ceiling of achievement for all students. Continually evaluate the rigor of the tests and their pass scores or performance levels against the goal of continually striving for improved levels of student achievement.
- Work to improve test instruments, including the setting of cut-off scores or performance/achievement levels, to assure that the results reflect students' skills and knowledge at the appropriate grade and performance/achievement levels. To the extent possible, make sample assessment questions and tasks public, along with samples of student work demonstrating various levels of performance/achievement.
- Develop new forms of the test for each administration. This is expensive, but it will serve to reduce the problem of narrowing the curriculum and teaching only to a test.
- Design assessment systems that can yield information about the strengths and weaknesses of students in particular content and skill areas and ensure that this information is provided to teachers, schools and districts in a timely, useful and comprehensible manner so that they may evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their instructional program, improve professional development and target interventions and resources more effectively.
- Involve teachers and their unions in the development and review of assessment systems and test items or tasks used to assess students against the standards test items that are used to assess students against the standards.
- Develop responsible policies for assessing students with disabilities that ensure that they have the necessary accommodations to demonstrate the knowledge and skills appropriate to their development and in support of the goals of their individualized education programs.
- Develop responsible policies for assessing limited-English-speaking students' content knowledge during their transition toward full fluency in English.
- Develop technically sound and practical assessment tools for vocational education students that measure the academic standards in applied instructional contexts.
- Acknowledge and reward student achievement gains, not just absolute levels of academic attainment, including progress necessary to succeed in passing future assessments.
- Report the progress of achievement in schools and districts by categories of student grade level, racial and ethnic group, socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency, special education students, etc.
In regard to intervention, states should:
- Provide high-quality preschool programs for all students, as well as early intervention for students identified as at risk for meeting the standards.
- Provide adequate resources to ensure that students have access to any extra assistance that they might need to learn the material. This might require smaller classes, alternative settings for disruptive students, extra time with a well-trained instructor including tutoring, "double-dosing," before- and after-school classes, weekend classes, summer school, etc. as well as access to specialists and special programs and services.
- Provide intervention in a timely manner; do not wait until students have failed to meet the achievement levels.
- Help to identify or develop the curricula, materials and instructional approaches that can be used in effective intervention programs.
- Provide the funds for continued implementation and monitoring of such programs.
The AFT reaffirms its commitment to high standards for all students and to the development of a standards-based system of education. While the course is correct, the implementation needs refinement. To be successful, we must re-dedicate ourselves to creating a system with high standards, a rigorous curriculum, professional development, adequate resources, an assessment system aligned to the standards and curriculum, intervention for students at risk, and rewards and consequences for achievement.