Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Education policy leaders from across the political spectrum flesh out and evaluate several forms that national standards and testing could take.

Our world is quickly shrinking and becoming evermore interconnected. But is America's K-12 education system preparing students for life in a global village? Unfortunately, it is not. Renowned historian Walter Russell Mead, author of Fordham's The State of State World History Standards 2006, found that thirty-three states deserved D or F grades for their world history standards. States do the worst when it comes to teaching Latin American history. At a time of intense national debate about immigration and assimilation, many states do not seem aware that there are countries and cultures south of the Rio Grande.
 

Science education in America is under attack, with "discovery learning" on one flank and the Discovery Institute on the other. That's the core finding of our just-released comprehensive review of state science standards, the first since 2000. Written by pre-eminent biologist Paul R. Gross, The State of State Science Standards finds that even though the majority of states have reworked, or crafted from scratch, their science standards over the past five years, we're no better off now than before. That's the bad news. The good news is that many of the standards are easily fixed. More involvement by bench scientists, and better editing, could greatly improve what's out there. Plus, there are a number of excellent models to follow (California, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, for example). The public's anxiety about the future of our nation's scientific prowess is palpable—and reasonable. How serious are we in addressing their concerns? To find out, read the report.

Almost every week a new report or commission decries the decline of America's preeminence in science, and calls for the nation's education system to raise standards in order for our economy to remain competitive with the rest of the world. Within this context, the National Assessment Governing Board is preparing to launch a new science assessment for 2009. Curriculum developers and textbook writers are likely to follow its lead. Fordham couldn't help but wonder: is the draft science Framework up to the challenge? Using much the same criteria applied in the Foundation's state science standards reviews, our reviewers answered: no. As author (and esteemed biologist) Paul R. Gross wrote, "The Framework is an interesting start, but there is much work to be done if it is to achieve its potential usefulness."

In 2002, when its voters approved a ballot measure calling for universal pre-Kindergarten by 2005-06, Florida joined a handful of states in which all children are eligible for free, publicly funded education in the year prior to Kindergarten. The passage of the referendum was cause for great optimism among those aware of the power of high-quality pre-K programs to prepare children, particularly low-income children, to meet the challenges of K-12 education. But as with any public policy initiative, the devil is in the details. In designing the half-day Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program (VPK), the Florida legislature faced competing demands. How did they balance the trade-offs? Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust lays it out in Fordham's latest Fwd: Arresting Insights in Education.

States still have far to go in setting rigorous, high quality expectations for K-12 math instruction. Although a majority have replaced or revised their math standards since 2000, many have failed to make substantial improvements. The review was led by David Klein, Professor of Mathematics at California State University-Northridge, and evaluates the content, writing quality, and clarity of K-12 math standards in each state. Klein and his team attribute many of  the shortcomings to overuse and wrong applications of manipulatives and calculators; wrong-headed guidance from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; and lack of true mathematics competence among those writing the standards.

Do states' current English/language arts and reading standards expect what they should? Are they demanding enough? Clear enough? Are states using them to guide not only the curriculum and assessment system for students but also their teacher-training programs? Sandra Stotsky, research scholar at Northeastern University and former senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education, finds that most states have revised or replaced their standards since 2000 and made some improvements, especially to K-8 standards. However, major shortcomings remain in other areas including high school literature requirements.

Co-published by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and AccountabilityWorks, with support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, this report looks at six elements of K-12 accountability systems in 30 different states. Each state is rated on standards, test content, alignment of tests to standards, test rigor, testing trustworthiness and openness, and accountability policies. The major conclusion: while some states have the basis of a sophisticated and rigorous accountability system in place, no state has every element of a serious standards-based education reform package in place. And few states are as open to evaluation as they ought to be.

Is there any subject as disheveled, distorted and dysfunctional as social studies? As part of our continuing effort to revitalize the subject of social studies, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute offers Effective State Standards for U.S. History: A 2003 Report Card. This groundbreaking and comprehensive state-by-state analysis of K-12 education standards in U.S. history was prepared by Sheldon Stern, historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston for more than 20 years. It evaluates U.S. history standards in 48 states and the District of Columbia on comprehensive historical content, sequential development, and balance.

Will the sanctions for failing schools laid out in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) succeed in turning those schools around? This report draws on the results of previous?efforts to overhaul failing schools to provide a glimpse at what may be expected from NCLB-style interventions. The results:?no intervention strategy has a success rate greater than 50%, so policymakers are urged to consider additional options for children trapped in failing schools.

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