Sizing up the push for academic standards

National summit starting today looks at progress made over the past

Prowling the halls of New York City public schools these days, Noreen Connell is thrilled by what she sees and hears.

"High-school students are actually being taught to write essays," says Ms. Connell of the Educational Priorities Panel, a school watchdog group here. "We're seeing a definite upgrading of what students are exposed to."

The reason for the improvement, she says, is simple. She gives full credit to the standards movement - the drive to ensure that students attain a certain knowledge base by a certain grade, and the related idea that if they don't, there must be consequences.

Ten years after a high-level education summit gave birth to the standards movement in America, national leaders (including President Clinton) are gathering again today to assess the pace of progress. With 49 states now embracing academic standards, compared with 14 as recently as 1996, there's little doubt the bandwagon has picked up considerable momentum just in the past few years.

Despite these outward signs of commitment, though, some parents and educators are concerned the standards movement risks becoming a fad, whipsawing school systems across the country but eventually fading away like so many strobe lights and lava lamps.

More fundamentally, a growing chorus of critics is asking for proof. What evidence exists, they ask, that widespread implementation of standards and high-stakes testing have actually improved the quality of education over the past decade?

THE conference that begins today in Palisades, N.Y. - widely expected to serve as a reconfirmation of the nation's commitment to the new course - may supply some early answers, even if it's mostly in the form of anecdote or gut feeling.

Standards advocates insist the new accountability has pushed students and teachers to work harder than ever, at the same time simplifying their tasks by making the goal clearer. Especially in large urban schools, says Connell, standards have conveyed a sense of urgency about getting the job done.

"Writing was something only honors classes did before," she says. "But now teachers know their kids can't pass the test without it."

Such positive assessments are increasingly challenged, however, by a growing grass-roots backlash against the standards movement.

In Massachusetts, Ohio, and Wisconsin, active organizations have sprung up to combat the imposition of standards. In Texas a federal judge will hear a case next month seeking to throw out the requirement that students must pass a standardized state test to graduate from high school.

Other concerns are that local officials will lose a large degree of control, that a focus on standards will leach the creativity out of education and turn schools into little more than test-prep centers, and that the new system is unfair to kids who attend poorer schools.

"Kids in impoverished areas are no more likely to meet newly set standards than they were before, if no more resources are made available to them," says Pat Wasley, dean of the graduate school at the Bank Street College's graduate school of education in New York City.

Even if the standards movement is still too new to be fairly judged, some experts suggest it is moving forward too fast and without proper traction in the form of public consensus.

The country has backed into a sweeping reform without first building consensus about the aims of public education and the means of offering it on an equitable basis, says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Without that consensus, he worries, the standards movement will prove no more durable than other fads that have swept the education world. "My concern is that we'll look up in six or eight years and say, 'What have we done?' and then tear it all down," he says.

The picture may have looked much simpler in 1989. That's when many policymakers - reacting to public dismay over the faltering state of US education portrayed in the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" - banded together to embrace the idea of standards.

At the core of the standards movement is the notion of agreeing what students should be expected to know and do at each grade level - a model, many point out, that has worked successfully for decades in Western Europe and Japan.

In many schools, standards are now backed up by a round of high-stakes tests at different grade levels. Either students pass these tests - demonstrating that they're keeping pace with standards - or they're kept back.

For many supporters, the concerns reflect growing pains as America's schools shift to a standards-based system.

"We're trying to impose change on a system that hasn't changed much in 75 years," says Ronald Wolk of Editorial Projects in Education in Chevy Chase, Md. "It's going to take at least 10 or 15 years before you see significant across-the-board gains."

The alternatives, he says, are few. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know we can't continue to have 40 percent of our kids graduating without knowing how to read," he says. "This time we've got to get it right."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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