Date: July 26, 1999
From: Andrew Ahlgren
Associate Director, Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science

This interesting essay makes many good points, but takes some purported benefits at face value and oversimplifies some problems facing educators. I worry about three instances of such credulousness:

1. Cause and effect. The claim that "the course sequence of algebra and geometry predicts college enrollment" implies that taking algebra and geometry will cause a student to be more likely to enroll in college. An equally plausible explanation is the other way around: students intending to go to college choose (or are steered into) that course sequence. Considerably more evidence would be required to show whether requiring other students to take those courses would affect their subsequent enrollment in college.

2. The meaning of "comparison" of standards. When standards are written broadly, alignment between different sets of them is fairly easy to achieve. At one extreme, just the names of subjects will do. Somewhat more respectable are "table of contents" comparisons, where corresponding topics and even subtopics may be matched. That is still an easy job, because curriculum is fairly similar all over the US. But the major reform standards of the last decade, cognizant of the very limited time available for learning, have gone considerably beyond such check-listing, to specify just what ideas in each subtopic are most important to learn -- both for themselves and for supporting understanding of other specific ideas. Alignment at this level is much more difficult to demonstrate and attempts are typically shallow. As Eva Baker, director of UCLA's Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, says: "The present watchword of alignment is mostly a farce."

3. The value of "high standards." The mere declaration of standards is confused with actually achieving them. The superior "rigor" of standards is transformed within the same paragraph into "accomplishment." Do more numerous and more challenging standards produce more and better accomplishment? Not if they lead to thicker and still more shallow textbooks, nor if the majority of students become so confused in the rush through unconnected ideas that they end up not learning much at all. More demands on teachers and students may indeed bring about some increases in accomplishment, but aiming at impossible levels can be dysfunctional. Excessive standards may, after much frustration and grief, end up being discarded or ignored.

Speculation aside, there is an empirical compromise possible between the "higher standards" proponents and the "better standards" proponents. While implementing "higher standards" programs, policy-makers could keep an eye on how well students achieve at least the literacy goals. If the literacy goals are as undemanding as their disparagers believe, then it should be easy to show how well students achieve them, and then move on. On the other hand, might continue to do poorly on modest literacy goals -- even when they and their teachers are pressed toward higher standards. In that case, some reconsideration of the substantive (rather than rhetorical) value of "higher standards" would be called for.

Window-dressing reasoning, widespread as it is in education, diverts attention from the need for well-tuned goals and correspondingly well-tuned instruction. Worse, it gives the impression that something significant is being done -- and so may contribute to preventing any real improvements in education.


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