Katherine Wagner, Summer 1998
Worldwide, a number of developed countries including Canada are part of a trend to national standards and assessment for public education. This
standards-based reform is occurring whether education is either a federal or state/provincial responsibility.
The rationale for setting national standards varies but generally includes:
- raising the overall achievement level of students;
- providing equal education opportunities across a nation, and;
- raising expectations while reducing tolerance levels for mediocrity.
Driving the trend is a recognition that the ability to apply knowledge will determine how well countries meet the challenges of the 21st century. Governments are putting a priority on ensuring that students are acquiring the skills and knowledge required to successfully adjust to the shift from the industrial to the information age.
In 1989, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) implemented the School Achievement Indicators Program (SAIP), to nationally assess the achievement of 13 year olds and 16 year olds in reading, writing, mathematics and science. The intent of the program, now in its third cycle, is to use the information for provincial priority setting and program improvements.
In the Victoria Declaration of 1993, the CMEC announced its intention to undertake joint initiatives in the area of curriculum. This became the catalyst for a new national agenda for education.
The Pan-Canadian Protocol for Collaboration on School Curriculum was adopted by the CMEC in 1995. This protocol recognizes that co operation between provinces and territories can improve the overall quality of education in Canada. The agreement established a process for broad joint initiatives covering curriculum development, assessment, program evaluation, learning resources and technology. Projects developed under this protocol include the Common Framework of Science Learning Outcomes K to 12, the Western Mathematics Curriculum and the Atlantic Common Curriculum. Compliance with the frameworks is voluntary.
International examples of the trend to national standards include:
The Commonwealth Government is developing achievement benchmarks for years 3, 5, 7 and 9 with their National Literacy and Numeracy Plan (February 1998). Reporting on student achievement against the national benchmarks will begin in 1999. Professional development for teachers will support the implementation of these standards.
The Department of Education’s 1996-99 Corporate Plan includes an action strategy to “monitor and evaluate policy implementation and the achievement of national norms and standards in the education system.”
Efforts to improve standards of pupil achievement and the effectiveness of schools will be centralized in the new Standards and Effectiveness Unit. Schools will be required to set and publish annual performance targets for students aged 11 and 16.
In a Green Paper dated May 18th, 1998, the federal government proposes a national assessment program focused on primary schools. The proposal includes “additional diagnostic tests, more national exemplar material, externally referenced testing, and more comprehensive national summary information.”
Over the last decade in the U.S.A., standards-based reform of the public education system has been widely adopted. In 1990, National Education Goals were unveiled. “Goals 2000: Educate America Act” and the “Improving America’s Schools Act” were signed in 1994. Higher academic standards and incentives to achieve them, along with alignment of curriculum, textbooks and teacher education are included in these initiatives.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mandates the monitoring of knowledge, skills and performance of American children. This federal legislation requires assessments in reading and mathematics every 2 years, in science and writing every 4 years and in history or geography and other subjects selected by the NAEP Board every 6 years. The data is collected at the national, regional and state levels.
Teachers Divided on Issue
The Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) states as one of its beliefs, “.. that the goals society sets for students and schools must be challenging but attainable, and that progress towards these goals must be measured thoroughly and fairly.” However, the CTF is less clear on the specifics of practical implementation and has consistently opposed the national school achievement indicators program (SAIP) as ‘narrowing the purposes of learning’.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) passed a resolution in 1996 endorsing “a system of high standards” that included calls for “standards
for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level” and “exams administered by the state that measure student progress towards the standards”. Setting Strong Standards (AFT, 1996) makes a case for moving the focus of education standards away from social and behavioral issues towards academic performance.
The late Albert Shanker, then president of the AFT, wrote in a statement for the Governors/CEO’s Education Summit (1996):
“The first essential element in effective school systems is the existence of academic standards at the national or state level. These specify what students need to learn–and how well they need to learn it–in each subject at each grade level…National standards represent a real opportunity for public schools to turn themselves around and win back the confidence of the people we serve. If we can agree on what we want students to learn, we can focus our energies, our ideas and resources on helping them achieve. Without standards we have no way to determine which reform ideas and programs really work.”
Policy Issues Raised
Jurisdiction: Concern exists, in countries where education is a state responsibility, that national standards will lead to a national curriculum thus undermining the location of political authority. This has not proven the case in Germany, a country where each state develops its own curriculum. All states participate in a national test supplying questions that fit the context of their individual curriculums.
Controversy around who develops standards is a challenge for policy makers. Business and industry, post-secondary institutions, and parents and the public have views that often differ from the K-12 education establishment. Representation from all groups appears to be an essential element in developing and monitoring meaningful standards. Experience in other jurisdictions shows that this is a critical prerequisite to the stakeholder support necessary for effective implementation.
Standards that are broad and vague are of little value. Effective standards are those that articulate clear performance objectives and are strong enough to support rigorous content-based assessment.
Care must be taken to align standards with assessment systems, curriculum, classroom instruction and learning resources.
The evidence suggests that national standards must be accompanied by the support necessary for continuous progress towards the performance goals. Teacher education and professional development, school practices, allocation of resources and incentives for success are important aspects of policy development in this area.
Developing fair and effective practices around the use of standards and assessments to hold schools, administrators, educators and students accountable is a significant challenge.