National Standards - Our Response
In response to the first couple of emails about our policy on national standards, we released this public letter a week later to address the senders’ concerns. You can download the letter from our website at www.sixpac.org/featured-work/
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Since our website’s launch, we’ve received a great deal of feedback – some praise, some criticism. We appreciate your questions and comments and are happy to provide detailed responses explaining our positions.
One position that garnered some mixed reviews this week was our stance on national standards. In order to best respond to these concerns, we chose to release this public statement further explaining our support for national standards.
There are a number of problems with our current education policy, but one of the greatest problems is the flawed system of incentives under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB dictates that in order to receive federal funding, states must write their own standards and create their own standardized tests in order to reach certain test results by 2014.
There is an obvious flaw in this system. Imagine that a teacher tells her students that they can write their own test. Each student now has a choice between mastering the course material or making an easy test for themselves. Both choices will get the student an A in the class – but making an easy test for themselves requires much less effort.
Students who desire an A in the class will not write a difficult test for themselves, as that would merely hurt their chances at receiving a good grade in the course. Instead, the students will purposefully write easy tests for themselves in order to get the highest grade possible, even if that means not learning the material.
Under NCLB, the states began doing the same thing with their state standardized tests. In order to meet the requirements set by NCLB, states gradually lowered their standards and made their tests easier and easier. As a result, students began to receive ‘higher’ scores on their exams, but were learning less and less since the standards were in such decline. This decline in performance was made evident by student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Low standards pave the way for a myriad of other problems, including “teaching to the test”, where teachers begin to abandon creative methods of teaching and instead drill their students to prepare them for standardized tests. Teaching to the test isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it is something all teachers do in order to prepare their students for upcoming exams. Teaching to the test becomes problematic when tests are easy and standards are low. Since standardized tests gradually become easier and easier, the students of teachers who “teach to the test” do not learn as much as they should, and thus perform poorly on the NAEP.
A recent article in TIME clearly illustrates the problem.
“In 2005, 89% of fourth-graders in Mississippi were rated proficient in reading–the highest percentage in the nation. But when Mississippi youngsters sat for the rigorous NAEP–the closest thing to a national gold standard–they landed at the bottom: just 18% of fourth-graders made the grade in reading.”
Opponents of state standards are united in their dissent of the current system, but fragmented when it comes to proposing an alternative. There are two popular alternatives: one is to eliminate standards entirely, and the other is to implement a system of national standards. Six PAC supports the latter solution.
Picture a typical classroom. For every unit a teacher covers in his or her classroom, the teacher has a list of topics that must be mastered in order to pass that unit’s exam. These topics are the metric upon which the students will be graded – or, in other words, the standards for the exam. Nobody objects to such a system as long as these topics are comprehensive and function as a good metric to evaluate a student’s understanding of the material. For the duration of that unit, the teacher will teach these topics to his or her students – or, in other words, the teacher will teach to the test. When test day finally arrives, the students will take an exam written by their teacher to measure their understanding of the topics covered in class – the equivalent of a standardized test. Again, nobody objects to this system as long as the standards are rigorous and tests comprehensive.
A system of rigorous national standards mirrors the situation described above. As long as standards remain high and tests remain difficult, schools will be pushed to improve their teaching techniques and find new, innovative ways to teach their students.
A system of national standards also solves other problems. Under our current system where states set their own standards, states tend to choose a curriculum to match their political affiliation. This results in a red-and-blue checkerboard where liberal states pursue a liberal education and conservative states do the opposite. This polarization has also affected textbook publishers, which now cater the material in their textbooks to the political interests of the states they serve.
In 2010, Texas lawmakers made headlines when they approved an increasingly conservative set of teaching standards. These standards shifted the focus of teaching in Texas classrooms away from a more moderate education in subjective courses such as history. The new standards removed the study of prominent Democratic politicians and liberal or minority movements from the curriculum and increased the focus on Ronald Reagan and conservative movements. The new standards also encouraged students to study the First Amendment and debate whether or not it truly demands a separation of church and state, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that church and state must be separate. Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller explains, “Political agendas – from the left or the right – simply have no place in our kids’ classrooms.” National standards effectively solve this problem by removing a state’s political affiliation from the classroom.
What about the political affiliation at the federal level? Much like how the Supreme Court is composed of both liberals and conservatives, a similarly composed federal education board would be able to craft meaningful, moderate standards.
Now let us discuss the alternative solution: eliminating standards entirely. Proponents of this system claim that standards hinder both student and teacher creativity, and that eliminating standards will allow both parties to flourish. In order to replace standards and standardized tests, they suggest replacing standardized test scores with a graded portfolio of every student’s work. Some proponents of this system even suggest using these portfolios in the college admissions process as a replacement for all types of standardized tests.
It is important to note that the complaints listed in the paragraph above are contingent on a system of poor standards. These same complaints do not apply to a system of meaningful, comprehensive standards and rigorous tests.
There are a number of reasons why a system without standards cannot exist in the United States. First is a complete lack of objectivity. Without a unified metric upon which to judge students, grading becomes completely subjective. We’ve all had ‘easy’ teachers and ‘hard’ teachers – the way each teacher evaluates his or her students is both subjective and unique. The same applies to schools – when comparing two schools it is common to find that one school may have much more difficult courses, a different grading scale, more qualified teachers, etc. Such variability makes it impossible to meaningfully compare the GPA of a student from Oregon with the GPA of a student from Georgia. These factors make GPA a relatively subjective method of evaluating students.
Second is accountability. How are governments expected to measure student progress without any unified, objective metric of doing so? How can an administrator evaluate a teacher based solely on subjective evaluations? An education system without meaningful metrics of measuring student growth eliminates all accountability from the system.
Replacing standards and standardized testing with the use of student portfolios merely aggravates the problem. How does one compare the academic success of an entire state with another when the only metric is graded portfolios? The state will simply hand out high scores to their students – there is no incentive not to do so. Although a system based on the use of student portfolios may work on the micro-level, it is impossible to implement on any large scale.
Finally, eliminating all standards and standardized tests would be impossible to implement in the United States today. Imagine if the College Board were to disappear, and to replace it, the college admissions process now mandated that each student submit a portfolio of his or her work. How would a university like UCLA sift through 90,000 applications, with no way to eliminate weak candidates that normally would have received a low score on a standardized test such as the SAT? Expecting such a system to work is idealistic and it would be impossible to implement in the United States today.
We at Six PAC accept that national standards are not a perfect solution to today’s problems. However, national standards present significant gains over our current system by providing us with comprehensive standards and rigorous national exams. Meaningful national standards will challenge students to learn and teachers to find creative new ways to teach, as opposed to incentivizing states to repeatedly lower their standards as they do now. National standards will also provide the objectivity and accountability that a system without standards completely lacks. Six PAC advocates for replacing our current system of state standards with a system of national standards.
We welcome all of your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.