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National standards need national tests

My colleague Nick Anderson found an early copy of the new common standards for teaching and learning being advanced by the nation's governors and state school chiefs, and got the story on the front page. It is an exciting document, with a deeper approach to math and a new emphasis on students reading non-fiction, a favorite issue for me.

But as Anderson and anyone who has followed the history of education standards knows, it is a long way from proposing draft standards to having them taught well in classrooms. One roadblock may be the ongoing debate in the United States between people who think the country is too dumb and those who think it is too soft. The former group will support the new standards. The latter may object to requirements for teaching subjects that they think violate American values, like internationalism, environmentalism, feminism and evolution.

Even more important, as we have seen with the No Child Left Behind system, only what is tested gets taught. Restricting the NCLB state tests to reading and math meant many states had no incentive to teach as much science and social studies as some of us would like.

We will need tests---they will likely evolve into national tests---that are aligned with the new standards. That means changing the annual tests already used in some states, and overcoming the still widespread view that national testing undercuts states rights. I have talked to some influential governors who think it will take at least five years to have national tests, which they prefer to call common tests, in the hope of avoiding that federalism issue.

It will be interesting to see how this goes. As always, the future of our schools will be up to teachers, not standards writers. I will be listening to what the best educators I know say about this latest development.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 10, 2010; 12:57 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  common standards, five years for a national test, national standards, national standards need national tests, social agendas intrude on standards  
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There already are national tests.

Currently there are only national tests of the federal government for the 4th and 8th grade in Reading and Math every two years. Test should be added for the 12th grade and the tests should be given every year by the federal government.

By the way the government has still not released the results of the Reading tests given in 2009. It is over a year since these tests were given. At this point it looks like there has been a foul up regarding these tests or the results are so poor the government wants to hold off releasing them. The results of the Math test were released last year.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 10, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

The whole testing movement has missed ( or chosen ) to miss a rather major flaw in using test score to determine anything. Under most current testing plans it does not make any difference to the student if he/she scores well or not. Hence there is no incentive to do well. The schools that report sudden Baltimore type miraculous improvement may be just as well be the ones who coached ( bribed) the students into doing well on the test, which is a whole lot different than having taught them any meaningful material. Let's pretend that your census form takes four hours and a lot of effort to fill out, but that the results have no specific meaning to you/ Are you smarter than a fifth grader?

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 10, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I agree with mamoore1 that the students need to have a reason to do well on the test. My own son told me that his standardized test wasn't really important because it wouldn't show up on his report card. He has an A average in sixth grade. I can only imagine what less motivated students think.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 10, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

National standards would be a good thing, but as you point out, if only Reading and Math are tested, will other subjects just be considered extras?

I know that whole school schedules are arranged to provide extra reading and math to get kids to score well on the MSA.

What will happen nationwide to Foreign Languages, Art, History, etc.? I would hope there would be standards set for these subjects as well and tests made.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 10, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

The "Accountability" movement has learned an important lesson from the military. There is a whole lot more money o be made as a defense contractor than there is to being a soldier. Or school reform pays way better than teaching,, Or "There's gold in them hills ( schools)"

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 10, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

The headline says it all... or should... but as with many issues involving education this one is likely to get caught up in politics.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 10, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Why do we need annual testing? Standardized testing has its place, but WAY too much time is now devoted it ever since the passage of NCLB.

I'd like to see the annual exams replaced by "exit" exams at the end of Primary (3rd), Elementary (6th), Jr. High (9th) and Sr. High (12th).

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 10, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

CrimsonWife has an excellent suggestion: don't test every kid every year. It's too much for the kids and not necessary for accountability. Either that or let's also hope they take a page from the NAEP and use matrix sampling, where each kid takes a small piece of a much broader test, then all the results get rolled up for school.

Posted by: dz159 | March 10, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I think Virginia, and all states, should give REAL standardized tests annually - like homeschoolers must do. Use the Stanford 10, IOWA Basic, CAT, etc. These tests would compare achievement for all kids in the USA. The teachers cannot teach to these tests, and these standardized tests check where learning stops. This would give parents a more accurate picture of their child's achievement as well as rank among all students in the country.

The high-stakes tests such as Virginia's SOL tests are not standardized. They are standards-based, criterion-referenced tests. They test students on specific material taught.

Virginia used to give Stanford 9 along with SOLs until NCLB. My guess is that Stanford 9 and SOL gap grew? Too embarrassing??

I would like to see how the public school standardized test results compare to that of homeschooled students.

Posted by: concerned36 | March 10, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

I would like to see how the public school standardized test results compare to that of homeschooled students.

Maybe such results will include breakdowns along race/ethnicity, gender, income and special ed categories like NCLB.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | March 10, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

You don't need a standardized test to determine if a child can read and understand a text and do arithmetic. The problem arises only when a child can't do this. Standardized tests reduce "proficiency" to arbitrarily-set cut scores on an ungrounded statistical scale. And they provide no information on the instruction a child has received or should best receive in the future.

As long as instruction remains a black box between standards and standardized tests, el-hi schooling will remain out of control.

Posted by: DickSchutz | March 11, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

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