What It Will Take to Make It Work
In Wisconsin and throughout the United States, standards-based reform activity dominated K-12 education in the latter half of the 1990s. The movement reflected a consensus view that obtaining substantial improvement in learning among K-12 students would require adoption of state-level curricular standards and state-level examinations linked to those standards. Throughout the decade, of course, educators worked on other initiatives as well, including multicultural instructional programs, school-to-work programs, and programs aimed at decreasing the number of students individual teachers would be responsible for teaching. But the standards-based idea took hold with singular firmness (thanks in large part to incentives created by federal law) in state-level executive and legislative offices, state departments of education, and school districts. As of January 2000, every state except Iowa had adopted standards in at least some subject areas, and 44 states had adopted standards in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Forty-eight states now administer statewide testing programs, and 41 of the 48 link the tests to the curricular standards they have adopted (Jerald, 2000, p. 64). In leadership circles generally, support for standards-based reform remains strong, as evidenced by endorsements that continue to issue from governors, CEOs, influential educators, and Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
But the consensus view never was a unanimous view. Many educators opposed the standards-based movement from the start, contending that standards and tests imposed by state law would burden local school districts and degrade teaching and learning. Now, as school districts around the country have begun to make progress in implementing the standards-based idea, opposition to it has intensified and become more widespread. Much of the opposition stems from fear that standards-based examinations will show many students to be learning little in school (Steinberg, 1999). Early rounds of testing in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia suggest that this fear is well-founded. One might suppose in these cases that critics would fault the instructional programs producing the unsatisfactory results (see Hartocollis, 1999). Especially among parents and educators accustomed to seeing local students do well according to other measures, however, the tendency has been to blame the new standards-based examinations. There must be something wrong, the argument runs, with standards and examinations that describe most students in the respective testing populations as failures (see, e.g., Steinberg, 1999, December 3). A variation of the argument holds that the standards and tests will have a disparate impact on minority students and will therefore be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (One such challenge has reached the Texas Supreme Court, where it failed.)
Other bad news also has put the new standards-based programs in a bad light. A round of data-processing errors in 1999 distorted students’ scores on standards-based examinations in six states, resulting in erroneous placement of many students (more than 8,000 in New York City) in remedial summer classes (Viadero & Blair, 1999). Some teachers and principals have been found tampering with test scores or providing improper help to students during testing sessions, in order to bolster schools’ performance profiles (Goodnough, 1999). And critics coming at stan- dards-based reform from a different angle have faulted the standards adopted in some states as vague and trivial (Finn, Petrilli, & Vanourek, 1998). Time and resources are now being wasted, according to this view, on implementation of standards too weak to make a difference.
All of these arguments will gain force, and prompt new rounds of litigation, as standards-based test scores come into use in decisions about grade-level promotion and high school graduation. The standards-based movement seems therefore to have reached a crossroads (see Hoff, 1999). It has emerged as a strong force in the schools, potentially capable of providing new focus and direction for the work educators do. At the same time, it has generated a backlash among some parents and other critics who see it as a flawed, blunt instrument that places undue power in the hands of people too remote from local circumstances to have any legitimate say about day-to-day practice in local classrooms.
No allegations of test tampering or egregious technical blunders have arisen to date in connection with Wisconsin’s standards-based reform activity, and Wisconsin’s standards-based examinations are not slated for use in anything close to “high stakes” decisions (i.e., decisions about grade-level promotion or high school graduation) until the 2002-2003 school year. Even so, Wisconsin’s initiative has been marked by uncertainties and conflicts of the sort that now overshadow the standards movement nationally.
The initiative got off to a shaky start when early drafts of the standards were put forward and found wanting, and the teams named to write them were replaced by Governor Thompson’s Council on Model Academic Standards. The tension implicit in that turn of events has not altogether disappeared. Many educators who favored loose standards (or none at all) at the outset remain deeply skeptical now, and many bristle with particular criticisms of the Model Standards and the Wisconsin Student Assessment System (WSAS) examinations that have since been adopted. Student resistance is a potential problem, too. High school students in some districts have balked at taking the grade 10 WSAS examination, or have refused to take it seriously. Some parents have lobbied hard against high-stakes uses of WSAS scores, and the Wisconsin legislature in turn has acted to postpone and soften some WSAS accountability measures. Looking on as parties bearing operational responsibility for the results, some educators fear that these legislative accommodations will undercut the incentives that the WSAS system was intended to create, leaving teachers and administrators holding the bag. Nor is there any reason to believe that weakened incentives within the K-12 system will be counter-balanced by other incentives related to employment opportunities or college admissions. Wisconsin employers generally have shown little interest in requesting high school transcripts for consideration in hiring decisions, and the UW System has to date found no way to use WSAS scores in admissions decisions (for discussion, see UW System, 1999, October).
In this context, standards-based reform could founder, scuttled by ongoing, unfriendly follow-up legislation or dragged down by grudging, minimal compliance in the schools. Much will depend on whether those responsible for sustaining the initiative can hold fast to the principles that give it a real edge while at the same time working to gain support for it among the lay and professional public. The effort will require, at the very least, midstream attention to certain shortcomings and implementation problems that have already begun to surface. It may also require attention of a more general sort to the K-12 governance structure within which standards-based education reform ultimately will stand or fall in Wisconsin.
We address these points in the report that follows, beginning with a brief account of why the standards-based reform idea strikes its supporters and detractors as something genuinely new in the long, desultory history of reform proposals in K-12 education.