homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
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interview: amy wilkins

Amy Wilkins is a principal partner at The Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization devoted to reform in K-12 education. In this interview with FRONTLINE, she talks about the importance of academic standards to improving educational opportunity for poor and minority students. And although she acknowledges that much remains to be done to improve standards and testing in the states, she argues that standards-based reform offers the best hope of moving forward. This interview was conducted by correspondent John Merrow on Sept. 25, 2001.

Why did we need standards? What was the situation that made so many people say [that] we need standards?

Standards really are a public statement of what kids should know and be able to do. Before there were those public statements, there were implicit statements about what kids should know and be able to do. And in fact the implication was that poor and minority kids should be expected to know less, and do less, than white and more affluent kids. So what standards really can do -- we hope they will do -- is act as an equity tool. ...

"Equity tool." What does that mean?

Well, we still do really have two school systems in America: one school system that educates more fortunate kids, white kids, and another system that educates lower-income kids and minority kids. And the expectations of those two systems were, prior to standards, very different expectations. What standards do is say that every kid in this state, no matter what color she is, no matter where her father works, will know the same sorts of information, and have the same sorts of skills. So standards really can drive, we hope, greater equity in what kids are taught in school.

So standards -- well done, anyway -- would be of greater value, greater benefit, to poor kids, nonwhite kids?

It has, we think, a special benefit and a special value to those kids. But this is not at all to say that it's not beneficial to white kids and affluent kids. If you walked into a school prior to the standards movement, if you walked into a school and asked the principal what third graders should know, she would give you an answer. You walked into another school and asked what the third graders should know in that school, you get another answer. So it was very hit-and-miss. ... Standards gives parents the information to know what they can expect from that school for their child. ...

A lot of us have expectations based on race and class. And what you see, and what you saw in Texas -- prior to when Texas said, "We're going to hold you accountable for the achievement of black kids, Latino kids, poor kids" -- you had teachers in Texas who really thought that Mexican-American kids could not learn at the same level as white kids. Some of that had to do with skin color. Some of that had to do with expectations about what kids can learn, based on family background.

The question is, do we have the courage, the political will, and the far-sightedness to do what's necessary for kids who are unpopular and unpowerful?

Standards said to those teachers that all of the kids in your classroom -- whether they are white, whether they are Mexican, whether they are affluent, whether they are poor -- are going to master the same sets of skills. And when the teachers had that imperative, when it became their job to teach all of the kids to the same level, lo and behold, you saw much higher achievement levels from the kids. So one of the things that standards teach us is that how well kids do has as much to do with the expectations that we hold for them as the kids' own ability. Kids give us about what we expect. And for black kids and poor kids, we expect far too little.

You said "expectations." Is it important to have consequences [for teachers]?

... We have to have a system that recognizes achievement among educators and provides help to those educators who are struggling. I think educators are like the rest of us, like the rest of professionals. They want to do their job well. And they need better tools to do their job well. So we need a system that can identify teachers who are struggling, give them the help that they need to improve. But if you find a teacher who is unable, or unwilling to improve, we've got to find ways to help them out of the classroom.

So the first step is telling the teachers exactly what it is they're supposed to teach?

That's what standards provide; they provide clear expectations for everybody. They provide clear expectations for the kids: this is what you're supposed to learn. They provide clear expectations for the teachers: this is what you're supposed to teach. They provide clear expectations for the public: this is what our schools are doing with your tax dollars. So, yes, the first step is being public about what the expectations are.

Every state, basically, has said, "OK, we'll embrace standards." Are these standards good? How are we doing?

Oh, it's a mixed bag. Most states now have standards in reading, or language arts, and mathematics. And it's a very mixed bag. In some states, you have rigorous standards, and some states have standards that are embarrassingly low. ... The kids really can perform at much higher levels. I think the standards movement is really still in its infancy. Those of us who support standards need to be critical, and need to say, "It's not good enough. We can do better." It's true about the standards -- we need to be critical of the standards; we need to be critical of the assessments. We need to make this a rigorous system, so that all kids have the opportunity to achieve at very high levels.

[What about] the standards in Virginia?

I think there was a lot of criticism when they were initially introduced, because they are very, very, very detailed. And there were lots of factoids that kids needed to know, names and dates and places. ... There's been some effort to sort of scale back some of the detail, and to begin to prioritize what kids should know and be able to do. So I think the Virginia standards are improving, and they're beginning to have a sense of priorities there.

But I think that one of the things we have to do in the standards movement is not throw the baby out with the bath water. ... I don't think the state should throw the standards away because [it] didn't get it right on the first try, they didn't set their standards high enough, or the standards were too detailed. I think we need to go back, and refine and improve the standards. But we shouldn't say, "Oh, this didn't work, and it's time to go on to the next educational fad."

So [the standards] need thinning?

Some standards need thinning; they need prioritizing. But we also need to help teachers bring the standards into the classroom. I think the real failure in lots of states is that ... in general, there were very open processes, with lots of people, mathematicians, parents, all sorts of people deciding what kids should know and be able to do. And they produced these very thick documents, and sort of threw them at teachers and said, "Here, do this" -- and didn't provide the teachers with the sort of support that they needed to change -- in very fundamental ways -- the way they taught. And so I think that as the standards movement matures, the next big important step that needs to happen is providing teachers with the support they need to get the kids to those standards. ...

[There's] this notion that we're going to run schools like businesses. We'll tell people what they're supposed to do, and here's the bottom line: tests. Talk to me a little bit about that.

I don't think it necessarily means run schools like a business. It means run schools openly and honestly, where all the expectations are above board. ... So I don't think the standards necessarily imply a corporate model. I want to be careful about that.

But testing has always been part of education. It's a really important diagnostic tool. How are you going to know whether or not the kids are learning what is being taught unless you measure? We've always had tests. ... At its most important, testing, good testing, is a constant feedback system for the teacher. It says, "I covered this material, and if two-thirds of the kids in the class didn't get it, there's something wrong." ...

You're talking about teacher-made tests ...

Oh, no. You can use tests that are designed outside of the classroom, outside of the school, outside of the school system, to get that kind of feedback. And hopefully, we're using these standardized tests for the feedback mechanism -- at the classroom level, to help individual teachers improve the way they're teaching; at the school level, to help principals kind of look across their staff, and say, "There seems to be a problem here, or a problem here, we're having a school-wide problem on this subject area"; for superintendents, to look across their district. It's a feedback mechanism for all educators, and standardized tests work fine for that -- good standardized tests.

Talk to me a little bit about the relationship between standards and the testing.

Once you have a set of expectations, you've got to figure out whether the kids are actually meeting those expectations. And there is no other way to determine whether or not the kids are actually meeting the expectations without a system for testing them. And so testing is an important part of the standards movement.

People have said to us, "Well, we were in such a rush that we developed standards, but then we jumped right to the test." I wonder if you'd explore that idea.

They shouldn't have rushed. If you have a set of expectations, the test has to be linked to the expectations, right? And too many states spent a lot of time, and had these very public processes, and were very thoughtful about developing standards. And then what did they do? They rushed out and bought an off-the-shelf test that was totally unconnected to their standards. Obviously, you want to test what's been taught. So the test has to be "aligned" -- the jargon word -- aligned with the standards, so that you are actually testing the material that's been taught, and testing how well kids are meeting the expectations.

One of the flaws you can point to in the implementation of the standards movement has been the rush to assessment, and low-cost assessment. If we're going to make this work, we've got to invest time in making good tests. And we've got to invest the money that it costs to administer and score high-quality tests.

Why the rush?

There is a sense of urgency about education in America. I think that people just wanted to get the show on the road. ... They were thoughtful and methodical about making standards, but then it was like, "OK, let's go now." There was a leap to assessments that weren't necessarily as good as they should have been. And I think that people are realizing that now, and you're seeing states go back and revise and improve their tests. Texas, for example, is putting a new test in place that is of higher quality than TAAS was. California is bringing a better test on line. So you're seeing states come back around now, and begin to improve the quality of assessment.

[What about] MCAS, the test in Massachusetts?

I won't pretend I'm a psychometrician. But my colleagues here at the Education Trust have looked at MCAS, have done item analyses of MCAS, and they tell me that it's one of the better and more sophisticated tests. ...

When you look around the country, what's happening with standards and assessment is that some states have done very good standards, and some states have not done really good standards. Some states have done really good tests; some states have done not-so-good tests. So it's a very mixed bag on standards and assessment out there.

What one hopes is that there is greater collaboration between the states, rather than having states reinvent the wheel. If MCAS is a very good test, that you hope that people from Mississippi will go look at MCAS, and say, "What is it that makes MCAS good?" One of the things that makes MCAS good is the high percentage of constructed response, open-ended questions, where kids actually have to create the answer, rather than recognize the answer, as they would on a multiple-choice test.

Most of the items on most of the tests are multiple choice. Is a multiple-choice exam an appropriate way to test whether kids are meeting high standards?

The issue with most multiple-choice questions is recognition of the answer, rather than construction of the answer. And probably recognition is not the best way to measure deep content-area knowledge, or high-level critical thinking skills. But that said, not every multiple-choice question is a bad question. There are multiple-choice questions that can be constructed thoughtfully, so in fact kids do have to do some work to create the answer, before they recognize it.

The other thing about multiple-choice tests, in the rush to bring assessments on line, is that they're cheaper to grade than open-ended questions, constructed-response questions. And many states went to multiple-choice questions because you could stick them into a machine, and get them scored much more cheaply.

But we can't do education reform on the cheap. And states are going to have to be willing to pay for the development of sophisticated tests, and the scoring of open-ended items, if we're really going to get where we want our kids to go.

I was looking at some standards, the twelfth-grade history standard: "A student will be able to apply knowledge of historical events and concepts to explain contemporary events." Can you do that in a multiple-choice test?

I'm not sure you can. I'm really not sure you can.

In English, twelfth-grade English: "Evaluate and critique increasingly complex and diverse literary and factual materials."

That obviously has to be an open-response question. No, you can't do that on a multiple-choice test.

But if you can't test that on a multiple-choice, and the tests are virtually all multiple-choice, what's the impact on what teachers teach?

You do see assessment driving instruction. ... You see teachers saying, "This is what my kids are going to be tested on. These are the areas I need to concentrate on. These are the skills I need to concentrate on." And so, again, we need to make these tests both high level, in terms of the knowledge that they're asking for, and robust, in terms of the kind of skills that the kids have to demonstrate. ... What states need to do is move away from tests that are all multiple choice, and begin to do a much higher percentage of questions that are constructed-response, open-ended questions.

In other words, if the teacher knows what's going to be on the test, does the curriculum get weaker?

I think you run that risk of the curriculum getting weaker, if you have a weak test. Which is why the Education Trust is trying to point to tests like MCAS, like Maryland's MSPAP, like the New York Regents, that are robust, high-level tests. You want to test kids on high-level skills in order to keep teachers teaching at high levels.

You said assessment is driving the standards. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around.

I think that's what we had hoped, that the standards would be developed, that the tests would flow from the standards. But again ... you had a fairly careful process of developing standards, and you had a not-so-good process of shopping for and implementing tests. What we have to do is get rid of these kind of low-level tests and replace them with more rigorous, robust tests, that really are connected to the standards. And you're seeing some of that beginning to happen in some states. They're going back and rethinking, and regretting, I think, the rush to quick and low-cost assessment.

Now, if we had the rigorous, robust tests, with more questions that called for writing and solving problems, would that elevate what's being taught?

Not by itself. There is no magic bullet in education. I think anybody that's looking for a magic bullet will be sorely disappointed. You want to have high standards. You want to have rigorous tests. But unless you also have teachers who are well prepared to teach to those standards, you're out of luck. Unless you have a rigorous curriculum that's aligned with those standards in those tests, you're out of luck. To make our schools work well for all kids, you need to have a number of pieces you put together. We can't say, "This one thing is the answer, and this one thing is going to solve all the problems."

Tell me about "disaggregating the data." What does that mean?

For a long time, what schools and states have done is test kids, and then the test scores are reported and evaluated, based on an average of the school. You look at all the test scores in the school, and you mash them together, and you say, "This is how the school is doing." Well, the mathematical function of averaging is to get rid of extremes and hide gaps.

What the average score does is hide the low performance in an integrated school. It hides the low performance of minority kids and poor kids. And what the Education Trust believes is that if you begin to hold schools accountable for test scores that are not averaged, but are broken out -- so you look separately at the test scores of low-income kids, separately at the test scores of black kids, separately at the test scores of Latino kids, separately at test scores of Asian kids -- you begin to set a common expectation for all of these kids, [that] all of these kids will reach the same level. And you can drive bigger change in schools than if you simply look at the average.

One of the things critics say is that these test scores are really just going to tell us what we already know: "Oh, that's a bad school."

I don't think so. First, because of the disaggregation. We have lots of schools that, on average, look OK. But if you take apart the test scores, and you look at how minority kids are doing, and if you look at how poor kids are doing, you find that a lot of schools have ugly little secrets that they didn't want to talk about. ... The averages hid the fact that schools served different kinds of kids differently, and that schools have had different sets of expectations for different kinds of kids. So I think that the tests will help us pinpoint those types of schools. ...

When President Bush was governor of Texas, he would use the expression, "The soft bigotry of low expectations."

It's not very soft. It's pretty harsh, actually, if you were a low-income kid, or a minority kid who's faced daily with low expectations. There's nothing soft about it. And as you get older and older and move through school, and finally get out of school, the harshness of low academic expectations increases. Because what we do constantly to low-income and minority kids in this country is say, "Because of her circumstances, because of his circumstances, because their neighborhood is violent, because their family is disorganized, because of the color of their skin" -- and we may not know anything about their family -- "we really can't expect anything from him or her. Can this kid really be expected to learn?" ... And the kid gets out into a world that doesn't make allowances for them. And the world becomes very, very harsh. So we do kids no favors, and it is not kindness, to say, "Poor Racito, you can't do very much."

How do standards change that?

Again, you have that uniform standard that says, whether you grow up in a barrio or you grow up in a suburb, you will master the same material. And since these kids are going to be entering the same world, entering the same work force, that's what we need to do for these kids: Give them an equal footing.

Let's talk a little bit more about Texas -- the "Texas miracle," as it was called.

It's not a miracle. There's some very, very good things about Texas. You look at what's happening in Texas for low-income and minority kids, particularly minority kids, and you say, "They're on to something." Their scores -- not only on their state test, which is called TAAS -- but also on the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP], which is a national test. You really see minority kids blowing the tops off of those tests. Black kids in Texas write better than white kids in seven other states. That's impressive. That's really impressive.

On the other hand, there are reports of increased dropouts among minority kids. More minority kids being bunched, being held back in ninth grade. I mean, 24 percent of black kids, 25 percent of Latino kids, being held back in ninth grade, versus a national average of 2.4 percent. What about that part of it?

On the dropout question, it is true that when Texas initially put their standards in place, there was an increase in dropout rates for minority kids. But you've seen a recovery in that, over time. Texas is now graduating kids at about the same rate as they did prior to the introduction of the tests. And more importantly, you see Texas bucking the national trend. They have their high school graduation rates going up for minority kids, while we're seeing a little diminution of graduation rates for minority kids, nationally; not a big one, but a little one. So Texas is doing OK on high school graduation. It is certainly a fact that there was a dip, but they've recovered. ...

There is something powerful and dramatic happening in Texas, and I do think it relates to the disaggregation of data. In Texas, schools can't hide behind the average. Teachers in Texas, schools in Texas, have to show that they're educating every kid up to that same standard.

You said it's not a miracle?

It's not.

What explains it?

I think the disaggregation explains it. But there are two reasons I don't think you want to call it a miracle. One is that Texas hasn't worked out all of its problems yet. Texas still has a lot of work to do. Texas' college-going rate is not what it should be. ... Texas should be doing better by its kids with limited English proficiency. So Texas is not nirvana. Texas is not perfect. There is work to do there.

The other reason I think it's terribly damaging to call Texas a miracle, is it suggests that high achievement for low-income and minority kids is somehow miraculous. It's not.

Low-income and minority kids can and do achieve. Their teachers are mere mortals. They aren't wizards, you know. Their principals are not sorcerers. The schools that get high achievement from low-income and minority kids are doing the same things that we've done for white and affluent kids for a very long time. It's good teachers, it's rigorous curriculum, and it's high standards. And to call it a miracle makes people think that it's precious, that it's special, that it can't happen again. It can happen again, and we see it happening in schools all over the country, every day. It's just Texas put the pieces together a little bit better than other people. But it's not a miracle.

How much of [that education reform in Texas] was George W. Bush, and how much the people who came before him?

A lot of what is good about Texas came from Bush's predecessors, Ann Richards, Mark White -- and even Ross Perot, as part of the business community, had a lot to do with setting up the Texas accountability system, as we understand it. The place I think you need to give Bush a lot of credit in Texas is that he was smart enough not to take apart something that worked. One of the big problems in education around the country is you see a new governor come into office who wants his education plan, and so they dismantle the education agenda of their predecessor, whether or not it was doing good. It could have been a plan that was working really well and it's gone, because it's a new day. It's a new regime.

And one of the effects of that is you have teachers whipsawed, every four years in the state, because there's a new governor. Bush had what I think was an enormous amount of both good sense and political maturity to understand "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and to leave a very good system in place.

And in fact, under his tenure, the accountability system in Texas became more rigorous, and improved and grew. But the basic architecture and structure preceded him. And so people who want to give him credit for all of Texas are making a mistake. But he knew how to leave well enough alone in Texas and to push it forward a little bit.

The Bush Administration has a proposal, which has actually gone through, for testing all kids in third grade through eighth grade in reading and math.... It's not national testing, but it's required testing. ... Is that a good idea?

The president's proposal of testing all kids, third through eighth annually in reading and math -- and eventually we'll get to science -- is probably a good thing, because it will provide more feedback to teachers in schools about student achievement. Right now what a lot of states are doing is testing once in fourth grade, and then not again until, say, eighth grade. There's an awful lot can happen. If your daughter scored OK on her fourth-grade reading test, and then she gets to eighth grade and it's just disintegrated, and she's having a problem with reading, you've wasted a lot of time. You didn't pinpoint the year where that disintegration started to happen. And so I think that annual testing will help us get help to kids sooner who need it.

But most states do some sort of testing along the way.

No, you still have a lot of states that are doing one elementary school test, one middle school test, and one high school test. And you have these years in the middle where nothing is happening.

The president's proposal says that states get to pick the test, and they get to decide what the passing level is.

Yes. For a very, very long time America has had a tradition of education being primarily the responsibility of the states. Most of the money in education now continues to be state and local dollars. In this country, we think that local control in education is very "motherhood and apple pie." And so I think we are a very, very long way away from any sort of national test. President Clinton tried a national test, and got his head handed to him....

What Bush is proposing is that states participate in a [national] diagnostic test annually in reading and math, which will act as sort of a check on the state test. So you'll have all kids in the state taking the state test, in reading and math, and then a smaller representative sample of kids in the state taking a national test. So citizens of the state will be able to look at how their kids did on the state-chosen test, versus how they did on a national test, and kind of see what's going on there. And if you have very high scores on your state test, but very low scores on the other test, it'll send up some signals in the state about the quality of the state-chosen test. ...

You said [many states] haven't developed the right kinds of tests. What makes you think we have the capability of producing all these increased tests [required by the Bush plan]? Let me read you what a test maker, a test writer said, when I asked her this question. "It's not going to happen. We do not have the capability of scoring and producing reliable, good reports in a timely manner if that plan goes through. The resources aren't there." To someone in testing that's committed to testing to help the child instructionally, that's a terrifying idea.

Well, first of all, it's absolutely imperative that the Bush administration put the money on the table to support this proposal. We can't do testing on the cheap. We can't do anything in education on the cheap. I mean, we can do it, and we'll get results that pretty much show that we did it on the cheap. ...

You and I have been talking about what a good test MCAS is. We've talked about what a good test the New York Regents are. It's not like the psychometricians don't have the know-how to put a good test together. We can put a good test together. But we have to put the resources there to buy those tests and to score those tests. And those are questions of political will, not the sophistication of the psychometricians. We can do that. We can put a good test together. But whether or not the federal government and the state governments will come up with the money to administer it is a separate question. ...

As the Bush administration is pushing for the testing in grades 3 to 8 ... some states seem to be backing off. Virginia has moved its deadline from 2004 to 2007. Some states have actually lowered the bar ... like New Jersey, New York, New Mexico. Other states are saying, "Well maybe we don't just want a high-stakes test. Maybe we should have multiple measures." Do we have a standards movement going in two directions at once?

I think what you have in a lot of cases is states saying, "We rushed. We rushed, and weren't thoughtful in doing this." ... I believe that they're staying the course. They're not saying, "Throw the test out." They're saying, "Slow down the implementation of the test." ...

I read it hopefully, as if they're staying the course and going on a slower path than they had before. You could certainly read it as they're getting cold feet, and that they're backing away. But the thought of backing away from the standards movement -- the thought of backing away from something that says we're going to expect a lot from all of our kids, and that we're going to expect the same from all of our kids, no matter what their background is -- is so depressing to me that I refuse to contemplate it.

If a state said, "OK, this is the bar. You have to get over it. And here's the date," and suddenly, 50 percent of the kids couldn't get over it, and therefore couldn't graduate, what would be the political fallout?

There would be huge political fallout. ... We can go back to Massachusetts again. You have a state that has a fairly good test in place, and you're seeing high rates of initial failure. You're seeing too many kids -- unacceptably high levels of kids -- who can't pass the test. And the way Massachusetts is responding is absolutely the way we believe that states ought be responding. They're investing more resources in those schools, in those kids that are struggling to pass the test. They're giving those kids more time. They're giving those kids better instruction in those schools.

I think part of the reason to have these tests is to make the political apparatus respond and say that we will not accept high levels of failure, and that we're going to do what it takes to help these kids to get over the bar. If there is no bar, the political apparatus can sit there and go, "Oops," you know, "Everything's just hunky-dory."

Some people have expressed concern that business is playing too big a role in this, that the business influence is too great -- IBM's Lou Gerstner, and all those folks in the last couple of Education Summits. Do you worry about the business influence on public education?

Well, I think business is acting out of self-interest. They know they need employees, and they know that they need a higher level of skill from employees for this new century than they did for the previous century.

I frankly think that the business involvement in education is good and important, for a couple of reasons. One is that the easy way out for businesses, and we saw some of this in the last Congress, is to import high-skilled workers. To say, "To hell with the American schools. It's easier, it's cheaper for us to go overseas and bring people in to do the high-skill jobs. And the low-skill jobs, these Americans can do them."

So if business can either respond by getting more involved in schools to better prepare our own work force, or respond by going overseas to import workers, I'd much rather have them respond by getting involved in our schools, to get American workers up to the skill levels they want and they need.

The other thing is that public education is exactly that: public. It's supported by our tax dollars. And for a very, very, very long time, schools have been very opaque institutions. They haven't been transparent. We sort of send our kids there and cross our fingers and believe it's going to be OK. One of the most important things that we can do in education is make schools transparent; sort of lift the veil and let all of us see what's going on inside our schools. I think the business community's involvement is helping to promote some of that transparency. And I think that parents are going to benefit hugely from schools where the veil is lifted. ...

What are your fears? What could go wrong?

The biggest fear that there is, I think, for all of us who are concerned about education -- particularly for those of us who are concerned about the education of low-income and minority kids -- is that we're asking for a very big change in the way schools do business. We're asking schools to succeed with kids that they never even tried to succeed with before, and we're saying that you've got to do a better job for these kids. And my big fear is that it's going to take time, it's going to cost money, and it's going to be uncomfortable for a lot of adults.

And the question is, do we have the courage, the political will, and the far-sightedness to do what's necessary for kids who are unpopular and unpowerful? Are we good enough to do what's hard for kids that we traditionally haven't liked very much? That's true whether we stay the standards course, or run away from the standards course. But that's the biggest fear -- that we won't have the stuff inside of us to do what's right for kids we don't like.

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