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National Education Standards and Tests are Unlike the SAT

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Message Patrick Mattimore
A poorly reasoned Commentary in the June 11 edition of the Christian Science Monitor warns that national school standards will likely be subject to many of the same flaws as the SAT- the college admissions test ("Lessons for Obama's education goals in the SAT, June 11).

Before dissecting the Commentary, however, here's my biased opinion. We need a single set of national standards and we should also have a single set of national tests to make sure those standards are met. Here's an op-ed I wrote for Education Week in 2007 explaining why: (Only the first part of the opinion is available to non-subscribers).

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Fortunately, the movement towards national standards has begun. Last year, the National Association of Secondary School Principals asked Congress to appoint an independent group to develop a set of common guidelines as to what students should know in math and English at each grade level. As of this month, forty-six states have formally agreed to create common standards in math and English language arts through an effort led by the governors of those states.

The push towards national standards has largely been a backlash against a monumental shortcoming of the No Child Left Behind Law- the fact that states were free to set their own guidelines as to whether students were achieving national goals. The states diverse evaluations have been useless barometers. We therefore need a common yardstick.

The CSM editorial reasons from analogy, however, that because the SAT test has been criticized we should be wary about "imposing simple, massive solutions in education on a nation of 300 million people."- That is a deceptively alluring appeal because it activates our individualistic sensibilities that suggest that no one size can fit all our students.

The problem with the editorial is twofold. First, the author equates national standards with national tests. While it is likely that states will move in the direction of a set of national tests after developing common standards, the two are not identical. The standard is what we expect students to achieve; the test is a method of determining if students have achieved the standard. For example, we might set a standard that students will know their multiplication tables from 1-12 by the end of third grade. We could devise a number of different sorts of tests to see how well students have met that goal.

Assuming that eventually it would make sense to use national tests to enable us to effectively compare states, the CSM editorial is nevertheless inapt in suggesting a comparison with the SAT.

The SAT is a norm-referenced test. That is, it is constructed to give a score that will allow colleges to compare student applicants with peers. That makes some sense for colleges, particularly competitive colleges, because they must have a way to distinguish which students to admit.  It does not make sense to develop a norm-referenced set of national tests for K-12 schools however.

Presumably, national K-12 competence tests would be criterion-referenced. They would be developed, not to compare students against one another, but to determine the extent to which students had mastered subject matter materials. In other words, we are interested in knowing that our students have developed certain competencies by the time they reach certain grade levels, not how their competencies stack up against one another.

Without national standards and indeed, without a national battery of tests, we will likely never know to what extent our children are making the grade. We can't really understand their progress (or lack thereof) if we must simultaneously watch and try to interpret hundreds of diverse "multiple measures."-  The sooner we get both national standards and national tests in place, the better.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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