National Education Standards: Getting Beneath the Surface

Paul E. Barton
Educational Testing Service
July 2009

This national standards primer takes a look at the who, what, where, when, and why of this movement as it has alternately spurted and stalled over the last 25 years. Or as Michael T. Nettles explains in the preface, "While the report is not a ‘yes' or ‘no' about uniform national standards, the clear message is that anyone who wants to make a sound and reasoned judgment on the question needs to do much homework first. This report will help with that." The scope is broad: Having laid out the history of national standards, author Paul Barton looks at the current conversation, including, in particular, the variation in how we define "national standards"--do we mean content and curriculum, performance standards, or student achievement? The common conflation of these three concepts has only served to confuse the movement, he explains. This confusion is also reflected in the sheer magnitude of variation in states, districts, schools, and students. From basic school structure to students' differing levels of cognitive development upon entering kindergarten, the American public education system certainly seems to reflect its bottom-up history. Tackling that organic history will be a tough battle for any national movement, especially this one. In fact, the risks and difficulties it faces mean that any set of national standards will necessarily be voluntary. And it's yet unclear how these standards will remain national but not federal, who will oversee and update them, and how they will be implemented. Don't read this report and expect to come away with all your questions answered; you'll be sorely disappointed. But the reality--that you will find yourself with more and better- informed questions--will likely prove more helpful anyway. Read it here.

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