A Different Approach to Setting Academic Standards

Photo Credit: J. Sanna (CC-By-2.0)

I just received EdChoice’s report, Rethinking Regulation: Overseeing Performance in a Diversifying Educational Ecosystem written by Michael Q. McShane, in the mail Thursday. McShane is EdChoice‘s director of national research, as well as, an adjunct fellow for educational studies at the American Enterprise Institute and senior fellow with the Show-Me Institute in Missouri. The report was released in May.

He looks at the historical justifications for regulation, examines the regulatory practices, and then lays out a four-step process for reforming K-12 regulation today. He’s primarily focused on what happens at the state, not federal, level.

It was a wonky, but interesting read. I can’t say I agree with all of his conclusions, and I think there need to be deeper changes than what he suggests, but I wanted to highlight what he had to say about academic standards and assessments.

He advocates states draft fewer, simpler standards:

By my count, first graders in Missouri have 112 individual English Language Arts standards they are supposed to meet by the end of the school year. Missouri only requires that schools are in session for 174 days, meaning that there is one ELA standard for every one and a half days of school. As a former English teacher, this seems excessive.

States should have a small set of expectations for schools that are clearly communicated, measured directly and reported simply. Any principal, teacher, or parent should be able to parse the results…

…The simplest way to accomplish this is to cut down the number of standards to just the most important ones. But another could be a shift from defining a set of standards for every single grade to a cumulative set of standards that students should meet by the end of the major transition points in their education (say at fourth grade, eighth grade, and 12th grade). Even if states wanted to keep a coherent set of K-12 standards, perhaps they might require less frequent testing. Prior to No Child Left Behind, taking standardized tests every year was the exception, not the norm, and even high-performing states like Massachusetts only tested in fourth, eighth, and 10th grades, (pg. 9)

This is an interesting observation, and one that states when adopting academic standards should consider. It’s certainly a problem with Common Core. I also like his point about less frequent testing. Even Finland, whose education system has been championed by reformers, does not require the amount of assessment as we see in the United States.

He also recommends that states allow multiple assessments to be used instead of forcing all schools to use one. He writes:

If states still want to test students every year, there are multiple, psychometrically-validated standardized tests that can give teachers, parents and community members valuable and actionable information about how students are performing in school. Whether it is the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the TerraNova, the NWEA, or the SAT-10, tens of millions of children have taken these tests. They are nationally norm-referenced so everyone involved can know not just how students are scoring in relation to the students in their state, but to students all around the country.

Schools should be free to use these tests as a tool to measure how well they are educating their students.

It is true that these tests are norm-referenced, and not based on particular state standards that states have drafted with their individual expectations for student knowledge. But the tradeoff in national comparability, ease of administration and freedom for educators to find the assessment they think best reflects what they are doing in their classroom could very well be worth it. If schools really value those standards, they can use the state’s tests. But it is also true that nationally normed tests reflect a broader consensus about what students should know beyond the handpicked groups of stakeholders that form the backbone of the state standard-writing process. Schools should have the option to choose those as well, (pg. 10).

An interesting point and one that runs counter to what we have seen most reformers advocate.