FEBRUARY 11, 1997
President Clinton has announced his intentions to create, "not federal government standards, but national standards" to measure the country's educational system. Many have criticized the proposal as a Federal power grab in the education field. Supporters respond that the standards are not an imposition but merely a set of guidelines. Two education experts discuss the President's proposal with Elizabeth Farnsworth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now we continue our series examining President Clinton's second term agenda. Tonight we focus on national standards in education, a key element in the President's call for a national crusade to improve America's schools. Yesterday he outlined his proposals in a speech before the Maryland General Assembly.
A RealAudio version of of this NewsHour segment is available.
February 10, 1997:
Two education experts debate President Clinton's tuition tax deduction proposal.
January 16, 1997:
The NewsHour looks at a recent "report card" which graded the U.S. school system a "C."
December 26, 1996:
Two Senators discuss the recrently released Congressional Democratic education proposal.
November 21, 1996:
A study released yesterday finds American eighth graders trail students in some Asian nations in math and science but perform about the same as young people in Germany or England.
Browse the Online NewsHour's education coverage.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: To compete and win in the 21st century, we must have a high standard of excellence that all states agree on. That is why I called in my State of the Union address for national standards of excellence in the basics, not federal government standards, but national standards, representing what all our students must know to succeed in a new century. I called upon every state to test every fourth-grader in reading and every eighth-grader in math by 1999, according to the national standards to make sure they're being met. Already in the last week I have heard some people saying sounds like a federal power grab to me. That's nonsense. We will not attempt to require them.
They are not federal government standards. They are national standards. But we have been hiding behind a very small fig leaf for very long. And the results are not satisfactory. Anybody who says that a country as big and diverse as ours can't possibly have national standards in the basics, I say from Maryland to Michigan to Montana, reading is reading, and math is math. No school board is in charge of algebra, and no state legislature can enact the laws of physics. And it is time we started acting the way we know is true.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The President's proposed national standards would be based on two existing national tests: the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP for reading, and the Third International Math & Science Study or TIMSS. These tests currently compare performances from state to state and do not assess individuals.
Now, two perspectives on the President's call for national education standards. Sally Hampton, a classroom teacher for nearly 16 years, manages the English Language Arts Program for New Standards, a consortium of states and urban school districts that produces standards and tests for student achievement. Richard Wolf is a Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Thank you both for being with us.
Sally Hampton, do we need reading and math standards as outlined in the President's talk yesterday?
SALLY HAMPTON, National Standards Advocate: (Dallas) I think currently there's a good deal of concern in this country about reading. And since my field is English Language Arts, that's why I'm comfortable talking. Most parents know that unless students can read, they're not going to succeed in school, and we know that unless we are able to help students learn to read by the end of third grade, there are definite problems. So I think the call for some kind of exam at the end of third or the beginning of fourth grade is a good idea to reassure parents and school boards and the public at large that we're doing the job.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Hampton, why fourth grade?
SALLY HAMPTON: Well, fourth grade is the time when kids have really gotten past a lot of the developmental differences we allow say K-3. There's a great deal of difference in what children are able to do just because of their developmental abilities, but by fourth grade we do expect certain things. I work for the New Standards Project, and we expect in our standards that all kids by the end of fourth grade should be able to read 25 books a year. Now, that's quite a responsibility for students to assume. And if they're poor readers, they clearly can't meet this standard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. Hampton, why--states have these standards and want their students to read by fourth grade. Why national tests and standards?
SALLY HAMPTON: Well, I think the expectations do differ somewhat state to state. New Standards has worked with teachers from states across the country. And they all come with a different perspective on what reading is and how proficiently a student should be able to read. Reading is not necessarily reading; that is, I might expect a student to be able to read critically and find a flaw in an argument; whereas, someone else might simply ask a student to be able to call words.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Richard Wolf, do you think that national standards in reading and math are necessary?
RICHARD WOLF, Columbia University: (New York) I'm very skeptical about having national standards. One of the interesting results of the TIMSS study was that basically there is no relationship between whether a country has national standards or not and how its students perform.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. And remind us what the TIMSS study is and how that was undertaken.
RICHARD WOLF: This is a 41-nation study of student performance, math and science, at three age levels: age nine, age fourteen, and the end of high school. So far, the age 14 results have been released. Those are for grades seven and eight. The U.S. student performance in those subjects has increased dramatically from the very first international math study where the U.S. was eleventh out of twelve. In reading we--in IEA completed a study of reading comprehension in 32 countries. Our nine-year-olds scored second out of the 32 countries. And our 13-year-olds scored, about fifth out of a group of countries.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Let me interrupt you one minute. You're making two points here. First, back on that early point, you said that there was no definite correlation in that TIMSS study between a nation's students doing really well on the test and having national standards?
RICHARD WOLF: That's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, for example, the countries that did best did not have national standards necessarily?
RICHARD WOLF: Some did; some didn't. And some countries that scored below the United States had national standards, and some didn't. And the countries that scored at the same level as the United States, some did and some didn't.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then your second point is that we're actually improving, so we don't need to do what the President is calling for?
RICHARD WOLF: Well, everyone's in favor of higher achievement. I'm just very skeptical as to whether national standards will get us there. It ignores enormous efforts that are being made at state levels with statewide assessment programs and enormous numbers of district-wide initiatives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you think that the improvements that you're talking about have come because of those state activities, those state initiatives?
RICHARD WOLF: In part. Ever since A Nation at Risk was published in the early 80s, there's been a kind of a wake-up call to education. And I think the last three presidents have all stressed the importance of education and increasing student expectation--expectations for student performance. And I think states have responded to that, and an awful lot of activity is currently going on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Sally Hampton, would you respond to the two points; first, that there's a lot happening, and it's working, and second, that there's no correlation between national standards and achievement necessarily.
SALLY HAMPTON: I think I'll take the second point first. Perhaps there's no correlation, but what I know is this. When I go--when I work in schools--and I work in schools a good bit--and I put our standards on the table, I can say to parents are these the things you want students to know and be able to do? And it reassures them to say, well, my students have to read 25 books this year, my students have to be able to write four different kinds of essays; my students have to be able to spell and punctuate. These are good things, and it reassures parents.
By the same token the students know what their responsibilities are, and I believe that one of the things we have to do is get children more involved in taking responsibility for their own learning. And the only way to do that is simply to lay out what it is that students are supposed to know and be able to do. And, of course, states are doing wonderful things in terms of standards. New Standards works with state departments, and we try to--we do something we call "linking," where we show the relationship between our standards and the states' standards. But we've also done is to build a test based on standards, so that we're measuring students not against one another but against how well they do relative to the standards. Traditionally we simply match kids against one another with test scores, and so you really don't know how well the student does. You just know how well the student does relative to another student.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Wolf, what about that, that if students know what they're expected to do, if they're part of it, they'll do better?
RICHARD WOLF: Well, clearly, letting students know what it is they're supposed to spend their time learning is certainly beneficial to student learning. You know, I'm all for letting students know. Individual school districts have curricula, their statewide curricula. These are in place and operating, and we've seen substantial rises in student achievement since the low point of 1977 and 1978 on the May tests.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, what would be the problem with adopting these? What's wrong with it? Let's presume for a minute that it's true that the states are doing better, and students are doing better. Is there a negative point to adopting national standards?
RICHARD WOLF: Well, that's a very hard question to answer because one doesn't know what consequences would flow from the use of such tests. If tests are used for promotion purposes, for some sort of grading, if they're used down the line for admission to college or something like that, they might have a very dampening effect in terms of the statewide and the local kinds of efforts. And people would just narrow their attention to the national standards.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you're afraid teachers would teach to the national standards, nothing beyond them?
RICHARD WOLF: This is generally what we have found in the past.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sally Hampton.
SALLY HAMPTON: I agree a test could really limit the curriculum. I would hope, though, that a test that measured a student's ability to read would not be limited, and, again, I'm talking primarily about the fourth grade reference to NAEP. We want students to read, and I think we need to put in whatever time, effort, focus we have behind that as a goal. But I think a good set of standards is all consuming; that is, it's broad enough so that the specifics in various communities can be respected, but what we know is central will still be looked after and taught. I would hope this wouldn't be a test that would be sensitive to drill. I really don't see how you can drill kids to become better readers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How difficult are these tests? You know the tests that these would be based on. How difficult are they?
SALLY HAMPTON: The tests--the NAEP test in reading I think is a good instrument. It measures a student's ability to read. The instrument that I saw from the past assessment had both multiple choice and open-ended responses on it. So I'm fairly comfortable with it. I know that if--I work a lot in the Ft. Worth school district, and there's been a large emphasis on both math and on reading for the past three years. And one of the documents that I passed out to teachers was the NAEP reading framework. We looked at it relative to the New Standards document, and we were able to determine that if teachers focused on having kids read 25 books a year as New Standards asked, those students would have no problem on NAEP.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. Hampton, do you think overall the President is addressing the right issues in his education agenda?
SALLY HAMPTON: I think we're all concerned about mathematics and reading. I've talked to hundreds, thousands of parents across the country, and those are the two concerns. Without those two skills I don't think a student has a chance in terms of an educational career.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Richard Wolf, do you think the President is addressing the right issues in general in his education agenda, or is he concentrating on the wrong things?
RICHARD WOLF: Well, I'm not sure he's concentrating on the right thing. I think everyone knows that it's the teacher in the classroom that produces results. That means the teachers need adequate training in the material they're going to teach; they need adequate instructional materials and reasonable class sizes. I think those are the kinds of things that produce results in the classroom, and I don't see anything in the proposals that addresses those issues.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you'd rather have him concentrate on that than on national standards?
RICHARD WOLF: I think that, yeah, because I think that states and the localities are doing an enormous amount right now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well, thank you both very much for being with us.
RICHARD WOLF: You're welcome.
SALLY HAMPTON: Thank you.