homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
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interview: william schmidt

William Schmidt is a professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University and the national research coordinator and executive director of the U.S. National Research Center, which oversees the United States' participation in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). He tells FRONTLINE that much work remains to be done at the state level to improve curriculum standards -- to make them more rigorous, more teachable, and more measurable. This interview was conducted by correspondent John Merrow on April 26, 2001.

We read that 49 out of 50 states have standards, and that Iowa did them [at the local level]. You're saying that statement doesn't mean a whole lot?

Since we've been working on trying to develop a national vision of where to go in math and science, one of the things that I've learned is, as you talk to states, states have this notion that if they have standards, they're there. And that's not the issue. It's not whether they have them or not; it's what's in them. And that second question is a much more difficult one to deal with, and yet we find states somewhat unwilling to really confront that reality. What is the actual mathematics, what is the science that is in those standards? ...

Those standards can range all over the place, and when we look internationally and compare those standards, we find that ... they're not anywhere nearly as rigorous as what you'd find in other countries.

Who's doing it well in this country?

There are a couple of states that seem to have standards that are more in line in math, at least in science, with the other countries. California is one of them. Georgia. North Carolina. There is some movement. Michigan has a new set of standards. So there is some movement in that direction.

So for Bill Schmidt, then, "good standards" simply means "tough standards?"

No, I'd say there are two dimensions to it. One is, good standards are coherent. They reflect the inherent nature of the discipline, so that certain things follow other things or precede other things. And that sort of structure of the discipline is represented in the standards. That's part of it. The other part of it is standards that don't just keep repeating the same things year after year, but they move upwards and take children in middle grades to serious, challenging mathematics.

You mentioned a number of states that are doing it well. But most states say, "We have standards."

I know, but that's what worries me, because that's exactly how America takes a complex idea and sort of oversimplifies it. It's not whether you have them or not; it's how challenging, how coherent they are; and that's where we tend to fall down. Even the states I mentioned may be moving in the right direction, but they're not there yet. I mean, really, when you look internationally, one of the reasons we don't perform very well -- and the data are very clear on this -- is because we simply don't have as rigorous and demanding a set of standards.

"Rigorous" and "demanding" are the adjectives you use. I have heard that American standards are too broad.

That's part of it. They're not very focused. There's two parts to that, actually, in my mind. One is we have so many standards at each grade level, compared to other countries. We're, for example, at eighth-grade telling teachers to teach 35 topics. Other countries are telling their teachers to teach 10 to 15. So there's one aspect of it. But secondly, the standards themselves are often times not very clear or focused, so that a teacher could say, "Of course, I cover that." And in some sense, they do. But they're over on this corner of it, versus the real depth of the standard, which is over here.

I've been talking to some math teachers, math professors, and they said to me that even if we had rigorous, coherent, progressive standards, we don't have the teachers.

That's a real issue. That's a very serious issue. My focus, nationally, has been trying to get the dialogue going to develop the standards and get them in place. But once in place, the most serious issue would be the quality -- and I don't mean the quality in a generic sense -- but the knowledge of the teachers, how we would get teachers that would have the deep subject matter knowledge that's required to teach those kind of standards. ...

We have to have a dialogue about what mathematics, what science, what literature, what history is important for kids to know at sixth, seventh, eighth grade? And then test those accordingly. We don't go there.

I'd fix it by starting with decent, rigorous, coherent standards. And once those were in place, that articulated what each and every child needs to know at each and every grade level, then we would be able to address the issues like what knowledge teachers need. And we would be able to adjust university education for these people. We'd adjust credentials. All of that could follow, once we knew what was critical for the teachers to teach at that grade level. ...

Do you sense any urgency in this country to say, "Whoa, what are we doing to our kids?"

I do, actually, I really do. I have been fortunate enough to deal with governors, especially. And I think that the governors do see an urgency in this. They recognize that it's not enough for us to keep developing standards that we say are comparable to other states. But we need to start thinking about how our standards compare to the rest of the world's standards. People have bandied about this term "world-class education," "world-class standards." But for a long time, nobody really knew what that meant.

Now we have data. The data are available to governors and others, as to what the rest of the world is studying, and now they're concerned. I think one of the things that many of the governors want to do is to raise the standards of their states, because they recognize that their kids are not just competing with the state next door; they're competing with kids all around the world. That's what it means when you have an economy that's without barriers, trade barriers. These companies will go wherever they can find people who can do the jobs that they want done.

Let's talk about tests. There's seems to be a real obsession with test scores. ... It seems to me it would make sense where you develop the standards, and then you test. But is this in sync?

... If you look, again, internationally, the tests reflect the standards. It's all sort of coherently together. In this country, the standards that we have don't necessarily define what's on the assessments. Or another way to say it: The assessments don't line up very well with the standards. We actually did a series of analyses as a part of the Achieve project, and we looked at some 20 states' standards and assessments in both mathematics and science. And a couple of general conclusions are possible from that.

First of all, the standards and the assessments don't very necessarily line up. There are topics and standards that aren't tested, and there are topics in the tests that are tested, but that aren't in the standards. And the second generalizable statement is that no assessment, because of limits of time, could test all of what's in the standards -- especially given that the standards in the United States have practically everything in them; there's the "mile-wide, inch-deep" thing, everything's in there. So they have to select what they test.

What we found is they tend to test what's on the simple end of the spectrum in math and science. The more complex stuff, which the reform advocates push, is never tested. Now, that's really a critical issue, because teachers, knowing that their kids will be assessed accordingly and their jobs may be dependent on how well their students do, they'll go with what's on the test. And that pushes them in the direction, in mathematics, of more simple computation type things, and leaves out the more complex mathematics that's comparable to what other countries do. ...

Now some states have purchased tests "off the shelf."

And in those cases, probably these problems of alignment are even worse than they are in those cases where the assessments have been developed very specifically to the state standards. ...

Is this like coaching me to thrown the javelin, and then testing me on whether I can get over the high jump?

Yes, that's about what it amounts to, in some cases. ...

I mean, what the heck, it's track and field. A test is a test, right?

That's what a lot of Americans believe. I think even educators believe that a test is a test. So if it has on the top of it "mathematics," they think that means it's the same test as any other test that's labeled mathematics. We analyzed most of the standardized tests -- I think virtually all of them that are used in the eighth grade in mathematics -- and what we found is those tests are really not the same. They measure different topics. Some of them have such a heavy emphasis on computational skills, like basic arithmetic skills, multiplying, dividing. Others of them have more of an emphasis on some of the algebraic ideas.

There's a lot of variability. So a score on one state assessment or one standardized test does not tell you anything about how that child would do if he or she took another standardized test or another state assessment. And I think that's what the governors are beginning to understand -- that it's not enough just to know that the student is doing sort of OK on this ... pick a state, North Carolina State Assessment -- because if they took the state assessment from Michigan, they might not do very well at all. There are differences enough that you can't assume they mean the same thing.

Does that mean you think we should have one test -- a national test?

I believe we should have a national vision, a national set of standards. And if we ever did that, then of course it would make the absolute most sense to have a test which would measure those national standards. When you look across the rest of the world, that's one of their secrets. It's well defined, it's well articulated. Children, no matter where they live, all have the same expectations. It's not a matter of which part of the country you live in, or which side of the tracks you live on. It's there for everybody.

In this country, that's not true. And therefore we have such unevenness across the country, and across the proverbial tracks, that this creates huge differences in opportunities for students to learn. Then when we test, we get different results, and then we say "Aha!" But of course it's not "Aha!" It's like, what would you expect if you don't have a comparable curriculum for all kids? Likely, you will get large differences between different groups of children.

I was watching a teacher the other day getting fourth graders ready for the math test. And she put a computation problem on the board, a four-digit number and a three-digit number, and they added up the ones column. And she put the multiple-choice answers on the board as well. And for the ones column, the answer was a five-and-carry the one or something. She didn't do the rest of the problem. She said, "Let's look at the multiple-choice answers. Does any one of them end with a five?" Only one ended with a five.

Wow.

Is that good teaching?

Hardly. I think that's good test-taking skills, perhaps. But it surely doesn't represent what I would think is good instruction. Or if the test was that obvious in that way, then I'm not so sure it was necessarily a good test either. That's part of what I mean by standards that are really coherent and challenging.

We shouldn't just be measuring basic computational skills all the time. Some of that, of course, is necessary. Children do need to learn these basic computational skills. But if that's all the test is, then it's going to lead to that kind of coaching, if you will, on how to do well on the test. But that doesn't contribute to the kids' understanding of mathematics. I think what really is important about assessments is they not only should line up with the standards, but they ought to represent the kind of challenging mathematics that we want the students to learn.

I don't think teaching to the test is necessarily bad, if the test were really good, really challenging, really coherent mathematically or scientifically. Then, in fact, this would make sense, because that kind of thing couldn't occur in a good test.

We're in the middle of something, so it's hard to know how it's going to come out. But is your overall sense that this is a good thing we're doing? Are we doing some damage to ourselves, because we're testing, high-stakes testing, and we say we have standards, when we don't?

Yes, I think there's a real danger in all of this. Because it just seems to me so often when we try to reform education, instead of really dealing and grappling with the real issues, we tend to go with the surface issues. So when you talk about standards, the issue is whether you have them or not. When you talk about testing, the issue is whether you have them or not, are you holding kids and teachers accountable or not. But those are the surface aspects of this.

The real issues have to do with what it is -- the substance, the discipline. What are we expecting children to learn at those grade levels? Is it the kind of things that give them a chance in life to compete internationally? And I'm not talking about just on a test. I mean for their jobs, for their futures. This is what's important. And this means we have to have a dialogue about what mathematics, what science, what literature, what history is important for kids to know at sixth, seventh, eighth grade? And then test those accordingly. We don't go there.

Because it's hard work?

That's right. ... But other countries do it. Why can't we do it? Other countries that have a lot of heterogeneity in their populations, other countries which grapple with local, regional sorts of issues of control. But they still do it, because it's important for the future of their students. We get hung up in the politics. And then we leave our kids out of the equation, and it's for them that we should be having this kind of serious dialogue. ...

People talk about content standards and performance standards, and we pass quickly over the subject of opportunity standards. What do we mean when we say opportunity standards?

I can tell you what I mean. I'm not sure it's what everybody necessarily means. But opportunity standards are the notion that if you're going to have standards, content standards, and if you're going to have assessments to measure those, then there ought to be somebody concerned about making sure that all students will have the opportunity to have what's in those standards.

[To use the track and field example] ... you and I are going to be judged on whether we can get over the bar. But you have a coach, and I don't?

Yes. That would be a difference in opportunity. Or you've been trained for some time in jumping that bar, and I've never seen it. This is the first time I've walked up, and all of a sudden somebody says to me, "Hey, you have to jump over that bar," and I've never seen a tape of how that's done, or the backward roll, or the other ways you can go over that. And I have no idea. So I just run up to it, and give it my best shot. That's different than when you've been trained over many years to go over that bar. You've got a better shot at it.

In education, to continue the analogy, we would say "Bill, you didn't make it that time, but we're going to let you try it again and again and again. We'll test you again and again and again."

Unless there's something intervening -- maybe I'm a quick study -- but still, if I don't get much instruction, I'm just going to keep repeating my mistakes and running into that bar. ... And that's what we need to deal with -- those opportunities.

Now carry that back into education. How does that work out in public schools?

We have those standards, say, at the state level. But then there's nobody that worries about whether all kids and all schools at that grade level are given those kinds of opportunities. We might have some children who simply have never ever heard of the concept of congruence in geometry. And all of a sudden, that's on the test, and they have no opportunity to actually study that, whereas another set of children in another school spend two weeks on it. Guess who's going to do well on it? Does that mean that the children who didn't do well are stupid, which is often the label associated with failure in these things? No, it means that they never had the opportunity to learn this.

Is opportunity standards the same as the money we spend?

Oh, I don't think so. No, no. I mean, it's certainly correlated with money.

Newark, New Jersey spends $14,000 a kid or something. Does that mean those kids have more opportunity than some school where they only spend $8,000? Yet, Newark's kids do poorly.

Interestingly enough, it probably does have some of that meaning, but in a strange way. I don't think it's dollars and cents but ... the wealth of the community, in effect, speaks to other issues, so that in fact wealthier communities have parents who, by their social class and their interest, push harder on the school. So they make sure that the standards ... the local standards ... what's done in the schools ... are at a higher level. So those children then correspondingly get better opportunity.

You go to a large urban district, where you don't necessarily have parents pushing in that way, their opportunities may be radically different. They may be spending eighth grade doing nothing much more than whole number arithmetic and fractions. Whereas in the suburbs, those kids are studying the algebra and geometry, comparable to what other countries' children are doing.

But if a big piece of it is the push from the parents, then you can't necessarily just buy fair opportunity?

No, it's sort of related to that issue, but it's not really just dollars and cents. I think it's the whole cultural thing. You see, in the other countries around the world, the way they mitigate some of this is that they have standards, so that no matter where you live and who you are, if you're in sixth grade, you're going to study these things. You'll all have those same opportunities. In this country -- given that we don't have a national set of standards, and even the state standards aren't necessarily adhered to -- what you have is this local notion. And so that then allows the curriculum and the standards to from district to district. That, then, tends to be related to the parents and their background and their social class.

In the recently released TIMSS data, we found evidence to this effect, ever so strongly. When you looked at the districts that participated, you had the suburban districts doing very well and the big city districts doing poorly. And in fact, if you looked at the relationship between them, it was almost like a straight line. The wealthier and the higher the social class of the parents, the better the performance. But when you looked at the data more subtly, what you found was there's another strong relationship almost falling in line, which is the same social class-type stuff, but the other variable was what the curriculum opportunities were.

So the kids in the districts where the parents were wealthier and higher social class had more demanding curricula than did those kids that attended schools [in] districts in which the parents were of a lower social class.

So if you set coherent rigorous standards, then you can say, "OK, how do we make sure everyone has the opportunity to meet those standards?" Or, "What does it take to meet those standards?"

Right.

So it becomes a rational process.

It does. Now it raises a whole host of other issues ... that do go into finance. Which has to do with, if in fact you recognize that the children's family background and how much home support there is does make a difference --which clearly it does -- then maybe the funding of the schools would somehow have to take that into account.

What is currently the case is that the wealthiest districts have the most money put into schooling, so that those that have more, get more. Maybe that model would have to be modified, so that more money from the state or the federal government would supplement those districts where kids had a longer way to go to begin with.

How would you make that political argument: "Let's spend more money on poor kids"?

I think the notion of equality, making it an equal playing field, is sort of an American ideal. I'm not so sure that that couldn't be sold to people and to parents. I do know that the state of Michigan did this. They removed the property formula, the local property taxes, as the main vehicle for supporting schools. It went to the state level, supported through state sales tax. So there's much more of an equalization now in the state of Michigan across the districts. So there are ways to do this. And I've heard of other states that are doing similar sorts of things. ...

For years, the idea has been, if we could just equalize the spending, these wealthy districts out in the suburbs, if we could just spend as much money on the kids in poor areas as they do in the suburban areas, things would be fine. That's not the answer?

I don't think that's the only answer. I think that's a step in the right direction. But without dealing with the standards, the issue of what it is that's in the curriculum, I think just equalizing the funding will probably mean that this social pressure from the wealthier and more educated parents in the suburbs will still be there. It will probably be not as present in the city center.

So even if you equalize the funding, there wouldn't be anything pushing the kids in the urban centers to higher expectations. That, I believe, would only come from a concerted set of national standards that would make it the case that all children no matter where they live should be learning the same basic things.

You said "national." But one state could do it?

One state could do that. And that's a great step in the right direction.

So you set the coherent content standards. And then you say, "OK, we have to make sure every kid has the opportunity ... to reach those standards." Every kid has a math teacher who understands math.

That's right. ... It's multiple parts. First of all, it's that the expectations are there. And that's a huge step, because we have data that show that in fact in some of these poorer districts, what's considered mathematics at eighth grade is just low-level computational stuff that in the rest of the world is third and fourth grade. And that's what our eighth graders have as their expectation. Whereas in other districts, there are much higher expectations. So therefore, that's what has to be equalized in my mind. Now, the funding should probably go with that.

But first and foremost, we've got to deal with the leveling of the playing field from a content point of view. Because then alone will we really begin to get a chance to equalize what children learn. That's what I mean by "equal opportunity." It's not just money.

You're working hard on this. Are you optimistic?

You know, I am. I've just been very fortunate, since the TIMSS results came out, to have the opportunity to address and speak with the president, members of the House and Senate, with the governors and state legislators and others in the business community. And I find a lot of interest right now in trying to grapple with these issues, and to make progress.

I see the real solution lying at the level of the state and the governors. And I see a real opportunity here. I've spoken to many of the governors in various contexts, and I see a strong commitment. One of the visible signs of that is the organization called Achieve, which is a non-profit organization of governors and business leaders. They're really trying to move in this direction. They have, in fact, developed a set of standards that would be world class -- by my definition, comparable to the rest of the world -- in mathematics, for the middle grades, 6, 7 and 8.

And there's a draft of those now developed, in some 10 or 15 states that are really seriously thinking about adopting those, and putting in place professional development and an assessment that lines up with those standards, and would push in the direction of giving this kind of first-class education to our children. So yes, I am optimistic.

The flip side is at the school level. I hear teachers talking about leaving. I see teachers leaving. "I don't want to teach fourth grade because that's the assessment year." They're taking something out of teaching. Does that worry you?

Oh, yes. In fact, just there's a huge turnover about to take place -- that's beginning to take place, as I understand the numbers. A large number of the baby boomers who were teachers are now about to retire. I've heard various numbers, but in the millions of teachers that will have to be replaced over the next X number of years.

But I mean the young teachers who teach for a couple of years, and they say, "I didn't know it was going to be like this, all this test, test, test."...

That does seem to be a problem. But I think if we did a sensible job of testing, where the teachers saw it as something that would give them helpful information about the progress of the school, their students, their instruction, and it was good solid coherent stuff we were asking them on these tests, I have to believe teachers wouldn't object to that as much.

I think one of their problems right now is, A) We do a lot of it, because we have all these different sources, different local districts. Sometimes they have a district test, they have a standardized test, they have a state assessment, they have the national assessment every so often; and other kinds of things like this. That seems burdensome to them.

But if we had something more coherent, [if] we had one test, for example, that would tell them how well they were doing, and it was on sensible decent mathematics that teachers agreed children should know, I don't think there'd be as big a problem. I think part of the problem now is [that] the tests don't necessarily line up with what the teachers are doing. But that's because the teachers don't have a clear vision that articulates what they're supposed to be doing. ...

It's just chaotic. It's a chaotic situation where none of that coherence exists. Nothing lines up. And so you have a teacher being torn in so many different directions. Standards saying this. The textbook is so big, and has so many things, and I know they can't do it, but they try to do it. The tests are in another direction. That's not a professional environment.

But it's within our reach?

The changing of it all? Oh, yes. It's really more a matter now of the political will to accomplish it. We know where we need to go. The data are clear. It's a matter of developing the will to make that change.

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