(guest post by Ze’ev Wurman & Bill Evers)
Some people who favor national standards have pointed to the variability among states as making comparisons difficult and have been quick to point to national standards and tests as a consistent, nationwide, uniform system to judge all schools in the same way. No one has been more outspoken on those points than the Fordham Institute, whose 2007 The Proficiency Illusion report was touted far and wide. It was followed in 2009 by another Fordham report, The Accountability Illusion, that took states to task not only for having distinct definitions of proficiency, but also with fuzzing the issue even more by playing with other NCLB accountability rules. Checker Finn came out on its publication declaring:
“This report’s crucial finding is that – contrary to what the average American likely believes – there is no common, nationwide accountability system for measuring school performance under NCLB. The AYP system is idiosyncratic, even random and opaque. Without a common standard to help determine whether a given school is successful or not, its fate under NCLB is determined by a set of arcane rules created by each state…”
“It looks like a school’s ability to clear the NCLB bar depends as much on the state in which it’s located as on how its students perform. No Child Left Behind’s image suggests that schools across America are being judged in a consistent, fair and transparent way—but that turns out to be an illusion.”
Hence it is a small wonder that Fordham has been on the forefront of the push in recent years for uniform national standards, and the recent alliance between it and the Gates Foundation and AFT, with the support of another dozens of “independent” organizations paid for by Gates, pitched for a national curriculum built on top of the federally pushed “voluntary” Common Core standards. From its reports, it is clear that Fordham believes in a single set of content standards with a single set of performance standards (cut-scores) as pitched in its Proficiency Illusion.
Yet, interestingly enough, in 1995 Albert Shanker came out against a single set of cuts scores across the nation. As he wrote (p. 79):
A recent and popular slogan in American education is that all children can learn to the same high levels. This is news to parents, teachers, and the public; it defies everything we know and appreciate about human differences. But reformers are nonetheless insisting that we establish a single set of “world-class” performance standards and that schools be held accountable for getting all their students to achieve at that level.…
If we set a single standard, we essentially have two choices. One is to set the standard high. That is desirable, especially since we are talking about “world-class.” Unfortunately, most of our students would not reach it. … [It] would produce intense pressure to lower the standard, and we would effectively be back where we started.
The other choice is to set the standard low, perhaps slightly higher than the minimum competency standard we now have but at a level that would be attainable by virtually all of our students. We could then congratulate ourselves for raising the floor of achievement, but we will have missed an opportunity to raise the ceiling and to move up the middle as well. If we can do better by all students by acknowledging that they, like all human beings, differ in their capacities, motivations, and interests, then why settle for a new minimum competency standard disguised in “world-class” rhetoric?
This issue is not solved by just having a single set of standards, or by a single test. To have the same meaning for “proficiency,” the test must also have a uniform definition of cut scores for all states that define the various achievement levels. Yet the national assessment consortia have been notably mealy mouthed on this issue — in their presentations to the California State Board of Education this March, both consortia indicated a flexibility to allow each state to set its own cut scores.
Makes one wonder how the new ideological partners, Fordham and AFT, will resolve this underlying tension between them.
[Ze’ev Wurman is an executive at a Silicon Valley start-up and was a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education. Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a member of the institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.]