SOUTH PORTLAND — Standards for quality are essential; you wouldn’t want to drive a car with a steering mechanism that doesn’t meet the manufacturing standards; you wouldn’t want airplane manufacturers to ignore standards for materials, electrical systems, guidance systems or tires. You wouldn’t want to ignore the standards for falling in love. What?

Oh, no standards here. Why not? It’s a very individual matter, a very distinct relationship between two people, which has inexplicable, ephemeral characteristics to it. Measurable standards? Not exactly.

Standards are essential in the physical world to secure proven qualitative goals. It may also be so in the economic world, yet there are a variety of economic models, producing a variety of economic “standards” for projecting, for example, economic growth. The same is true for other social systems; in this country, we are a multi-race, multi-faith, multi-political party aggregation. We believe in innovation and entrepreneurial actions; we think outside the box. If these latter statements apply in society in general, why shouldn’t they apply in one of society’s core constructs, our schools?

Applying standards to educational performance requires many decisions by those establishing the standards. Including teachers and administrators is valid, except that it likely leads to compromises. Further, the group established to create the standards is likely to have been vetted and not include those who might argue against the establishment of standards at all.

Beyond that, research varies on the value of standards-based education. Yes, there are examples of success, but there are also examples of failure. The core issue is not only what standard but also how many of them. Should every school topic have a set of standards?

Visualize setting a standard for an English class. Of the topics in the English curriculum, how will the group determine which are essential demonstrable knowledge? Is a proficiency level the equivalent of learning, or could it be less than what was learned? A gain in confidence, maturity, capability to learn how to learn and other non-quantifiable personal growth features will likely not be included in standards. And what happens if the proficiency level isn’t attained?

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The next concern is with the assessment tool. Multiple-choice tests? Portfolio? Projects? Having these options is a good idea, but how can judgment not influence assessment? Further, even for a standardized multiple-choice test, what is a valid cut point? If 80 is it, how is a score of 79 to be treated? Even “close enough” sometimes is allowable in designing and building physical objects. Yes, things are built with an allowable tolerance; even NASA had the expression “nominal,” which in essence meant in a safe range. But kids aren’t objects coming off an assembly line, yet learning to a standard treats them as if quality control along the “assembly line” will result in a favorable outcome. Even assembly lines have rejection points.

So even if standards are established, the outcome for all students completing a common curriculum is that all possess the same minimum measurable chunk of information and skills.

Is this the goal, uniformity? Some students may exceed the standard, but why bother when attaining the minimum will do to pass and ultimately graduate?

Again, uniform integrity of the windshields of aircraft is critical. How critical are the assessed school topics to the student or society? Yes, we may find that our graduation rate increased after invoking standards-based education, but quantity doesn’t equate to quality and if quality isn’t a primary concern, what’s the point? Increased graduation rate or slight gains in SAT aggregate scores are indices of quantity and this goal, based on meeting standards, is misleading to parents and the population at large.

And by the way, administrators and teachers already have standards, and to imply that these standards are insufficient is insulting. Yes, there is always room for improvement, and of the educators I know, there is a constant press to do so. Some research has indicated that standards-based education suppresses teacher innovation and integrity because focus is forced to shift from education to meeting the standard.

I hope the standards group does its homework and deliberates long and hard across the spectrum of concerns and how standards influences teaching and learning.

 

– Special to the Press Herald

 


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