By Phil Schlechty
Governors and chief state school officers from 46 states and other members of the policy elite are threatening or promising to embrace common national standards. If they really mean common standards, this might not be a bad idea. Unfortunately, what will follow the development of national standards will be a drive for a common national test—a standardized test—to assess performance against the standard. The result will be that the test will become the standard and the standards themselves will recede into the background.
I don’t know whether the proposed national standards will be rich and powerful, but I do know that rich and powerful standards cannot be assessed from afar or with too much reliance on standardized tests. How do I know this is so? Two decades of state experience proves it to be so. The morphing of powerful standards into trivializing tests is the history of the standards movement in the United States. What we need are standards for assessing performance against national standards and a means of holding local communities accountable for ensuring that whatever standards they claim to uphold serve as the basis for local assessments.
Political leaders are wont to quote favorably the statement by Tip O’Neil, the longtime Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, that “all politics is local.” It is time they embraced the equally compelling notion that all assessments, if they are truly to affect performance, must be local as well. Test scores are not standards, even though state officials and bureaucrats tend to treat them as though they were. Test scores as they are currently used are either auditing tools or instruments to bludgeon teachers and local communities into compliance with standards they often do not understand and do not embrace as their own.
The strength of bureaucracy is found it its ability to standardize. It is not the characteristic of bureaucracies to inspire excellence. Thus, the standards that can be enforced by bureaucracies and by bureaucrats are designed to produce standardized education. The pursuit of excellence depends on the commitment of local communities to standards and the willingness of local publics to enforce the standards to which they become committed.
Standards may be a national concern, but the assessment and enforcement of standards is a local responsibility. What is needed are ways to ensure that local communities accept this responsibility. Rather than strategies for taking the responsibility for enforcing standards away from local communities and lodging it in government offices far removed from the schools and classrooms to which they apply, state and federal governments should be concerned with helping local communities and local publics develop the capacity to embrace and enforce the standards of excellence to which every child is entitled.