Make National Education Standards Simple (But Not Too Simple)

By Phillip Schlechty

I recently received a copy of a report written by Paul E. Barton entitled “National Education Standards: Getting Beneath the Surface” from ETS (Educational Testing Service).  (Copies can be downloaded here.) The report is worth reading; in fact, I read it twice.


I came away feeling sorry that many of those who are pushing for national standards either do not understand the complexity with which they are dealing or do not believe it is really that complex—or they are somehow so blinded by their own agendas that they do not see what they need to see in order to do what they want to do.


Among other things, Barton reminds us that there are many kinds of standards: for example, opportunity standards, standards for what should be taught, and standards for what should be learned. Sadly, the standards of greatest concern to those who argue for national standards are usually limited to those having to do with standards related to scores on standardized tests.


Clearly, if we are to truly have national standards we need to think much more deeply about what we mean by the word standards. For example, what are the differences between and among the meanings of the words standard, goal, benchmark, and indicator? How does evaluation differ from assessment, and what is the difference between an assessment and a test? When the word test is used within the context of the standards movement, is the meaning limited to paper- and-pencil tests? When I ask my grandson to read to me so that I may figure out if he can read, am I testing him or is something else going on?


There are, of course, no nice, neat, and simple answers to such questions. Standards are not goals, but it can be a goal to meet a standard. Benchmarks are not standards, but they can be used to mark progress toward meeting a goal. Can benchmarks also be used to track progress toward meeting a standard? That, I suspect, depends on how we define the word standard. Indicators are, I think, things—conditions and attributes we are willing to take as evidence that some more abstract condition is also present or being met. Does this mean that indicators are more concrete than the condition being indicated? That too depends. Sometimes indicators morph into standards.  (That is what has happened with tests—or so I would argue.)


Tests are commonly referred to as assessments, but it is just as common to use tests to assess.  (In this latter case, tests are tools in an assessment process. What then are the other tools?) Is evaluation simply another name for assessment, or is evaluation something we do in the process of assessing? If so, what else do we do in addition to testing and evaluating? (Thinking and analyzing might be useful places to begin—and to end—an assessment process.)


Barton ends his very useful monograph with a quote from Albert Einstein which goes as follows:  “You should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Those who would use scores on paper-and-pencil tests as a substitute for standards make things simpler than they are. More than that, they threaten to render trivial and meaningless the idea that common standards are essential to quality education. 


The thing that makes standards common is that they are embraced (not simply complied with) by those to whom they apply, as well as by those who must see to their application. That is why I argued in my earlier blog that standards may well be national standards but their assessment and enforcement should be local matters.


5 Responses to “Make National Education Standards Simple (But Not Too Simple)”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fife WOW. Fife WOW said: RT @fifetech Make National Education Standards Simple (But Not Too Simple) #Schlechty [...]

  2. Sara Logan says:

    Shout Out From The Schoolhouse Door!

    Hello, Phil!

    This is my 34th year of teaching. The best years of my career were spent as a teacher facilitator of Schlechty work under the wise guidance of Lennie Hay. I continue to weave my lessons with the Design Qualities in mind, yet so much has changed in our community. It’s a long, tumultuous story…one I won’t go into now. However, I am confident that much of the frustration within the schools and the community that they serve comes from the burden of state standards on our local districts. We have gone from a Standard Bearer School System to a system that has been awarded the Excellence With Distinction title from the state. We received this new title based on test scores. Student achievement is certainly an important goal for a school. When it is measured solely by state test scores, so much of the students’ abilities are not fostered. Decisions, including how funds are utilized, are based on test score data…based on standards far from the schoolhouse door. And these are state standards. National standards seem even more remote. I’m thinking Arnie Duncan needs a “sit down” with Phil. Arnie seems like a leader who can listen with an open mind. Please Phil, send your blogs to Arnie!!!

  3. Suzanne Freeman says:

    I read your post several times because you made many meaningful points for me to ponder. I agree with your position and had not thought of the complexity as you describe it. You are right, this is a complex issue.
    I worry too that the push for National Standards will bring about a list of shallow “skills” that are rooted in traditional thinking. I also worry that these will be written with traditional assessments in mind and yet learning in this century is far more complex. There seems to be a sense of urgency in creating these “standards” and my worry is that we (citizens) are missing an opportunity to talk about what our youth need to know and be able to do. This is why I have a healthy fear of National Standards as it is progressing now.
    Your post has given me a lot of think about and reminds me that I need to be more vocal in the conversation about National Standards.

  4. Susan (Sue) Colton says:

    Hi Phil! Sue Colton from sunny South Florida here…………..
    Recently, our School Board/Superintendent voted NOT to apply for funding from the “Race to the Top” opportunity. I applaud their COURAGE not to do so! Not that we couldn’t use the money…….. After cutting back everything at schools last year to meet the state’s shortfall of unfunded mandates (including staff), we are still facing huge upcoming deficits. Last year, stimulus dollars helped my school retain 4 teachers and 5 paraprofessionals, as well as services to ESE students required by law through IDEA. However, accepting money that is destined to be used to create more tests that will “assess” all students to achieve 100% on Reading, Writing, Math and Science Standards by 2020 is unacceptable. Especially when we do not have a clear-cut understanding as by “whose” standards these will be designed, or if these assessments will look like more of the same (scores on standardized tests). Our “punishment” so far is to not receive dollars for additional students we received at our schools before the October count, and I am sure there will be more repercussions in the future.
    What will it take for educators to band together and rise to challenge of taking back public education? Will it be survival or extinction?

  5. Linda Schiller says:

    “Morphing of powerful standards into trivializing tests” is one of the best interpretations of the standards movement that I have heard. What we need, however, is a an assortment of tests, including performance assessments, where students are permitted to choose their “test.” I realized this when I met with a 7th grade student who kept missing a proficient score by just a few points. My job was to encourage him and explain to him that he could “do it” if he only tried a bit harder. He broke down and with real tears running down his checks told me, “I can take your car engine apart and put it back together in record time, doesn’t that count for anything?”

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