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Thirty Years Adrift on an Ocean of Reforms: We Set Our Course on Standards and Tests

This nation.s children deserve a better standard of practice than teaching to the test.

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” – Like or loathe them, those words from A Nation at Risk live on in education reform infamy.

30 years later, many in this nation are demanding we do exactly what President Reagan’s education commission offered; we just don’t know it.

As President Reagan explained, he and his Secretary of Education T. H. Bell “agreed that it was imperative to assemble a panel of America’s leading educators, an assembly of such eminence that the Nation would listen to its findings.” So when the nation did listen, we heard Ronald Reagan, not the experts, say, “…our educational system is in the grip of a crisis caused by low standards…” And those words grabbed and held the nation’s attention.

The New York Times reported that we were “being threatened by lax standards and misguided priorities in the schools” and that “the commission said low educational standards constitute a serious problem.” If members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education did speak those words in 1983, they did not choose to write them in the official report!

What the report really said about standards was this:

“We should expect schools to have genuinely high standards rather than minimum ones, and parents to support and encourage their children to make the most of their talents and abilities.”… “we find that for too many people education means doing the minimum work necessary for the moment, then coasting through life on what may have been learned in its first quarter. But this should not surprise us because we tend to express our educational standards and expectations largely in terms of ‘minimum requirements.'” … “In some colleges maintaining enrollments is of greater day-to-day concern than maintaining rigorous academic standards.”

And their advice for setting standards for secondary schools:

We recommend that schools, colleges, and universities adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission. This will help students do their best educationally with challenging materials in an environment that supports learning and authentic accomplishment.

In addition,

“Persons preparing to teach should be required to meet high educational standards, to demonstrate an aptitude for teaching, and to demonstrate competence in an academic discipline. Colleges and universities offering teacher preparation programs should be judged by how well their graduates meet these criteria.”

That’s it! You can read, reread, and word search the document and you will not find a recommendation that we set K through 12 academic standards at a level that all students will meet. Instead, we were urged not to see standards as the goal, but instead to set the expectation for students that they will do their personal best to push themselves to the limit of their talents and continue through life as life-long learners.

In A Nation at Risk, you will not find “standards” being held up as neither the silver bullet nor the major problem despite what foes and fans alike – and the public – have been led to believe.

Given the damaging results of the national push for 100% “proficiency” in meeting math and reading standards, the new push for Common Core standards, plus, the No Child Left Behind yearly mandated high-stakes tests for accountability purposes, we must look closely at what was actually recommended for standardized testing.The commission wrote:

Four-year colleges and universities should raise their admissions requirements and advise all potential applicants of the standards for admission in terms of specific courses required, performance in these areas, and levels of achievement on standardized achievement tests in each of the five Basics and, where applicable, foreign languages.

Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work. The purposes of these tests would be to: (a) certify the student’s credentials; (b) identify the need for remedial intervention; and (c) identify the opportunity for advanced or accelerated work. The tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not Federal) system of State and local standardized tests. This system should include other diagnostic procedures that assist teachers and students to evaluate student progress.

It is this one recommendation – standardized tests of achievement be administered at major transition points – that we should now adopt in place of the No Child Left Behind mandate of yearly tests. The suggestion for testing in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades has been successfully used by the nation in the past and is what groups across this country have agreed is reasonable, appropriate testing.

The truth: it was never A Nation at Risk that led the standards, testing, and accountability movement. As Valerie Strauss recalled, it was “Reagan’s second education secretary, William (Bill) Bennett, [who] continued to pursue a policy that focused on standardized testing.”

Influential people set this nation adrift on the faulty belief that somehow raising the bar with different standards and more testing would float all boats and stem the “tide of mediocrity.” It didn’t; this we know.

Now we can simply begin to get back on course by asking congressional candidates to make a pledge to remove the yearly testing mandate from federal education law. And we must demand that President Obama stand by his statements about pushing for an end to excessive testing.

This nation’s children deserve a better standard of practice than teaching to the test.

As A Nation at Risk affirmed, “It is by our willingness to take up the challenge, and our resolve to see it through, that America’s place in the world will be either secured or forfeited.”

Let’s set the right course for the public education system – away from test and blame, back towards strengthen and improve.

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