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.