National Standards for Public Education
Worldwide, developed countries, including Canada, are considering and implementing national standards and assessment for public education. This federal education reform is occurring even where education is considered a state or provincial responsibility.
The rationale for setting national standards varies, but generally includes:
- Lifting the overall achievement level of students;
- Providing equal education opportunities across a nation, and;
- Raising expectations while reducing tolerance levels for mediocrity.
Driving the trend is a recognition that the ability to apply knowledge will determine how well countries meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The industrial age is well on its journey into the history books. Governments are placing a priority on ensuring students acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for success in the new information age.
In 1989, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC)
implemented the School Achievement Indicators Program
(SAIP), to nationally assess the achievement of 13 year olds and 16 year olds in
reading, writing, mathematics and science. The intent of the program, now in its third
cycle, is to use the information for provincial priority setting and program improvements.
Within 1993's Victoria Declaration, the CMEC announced its intention to undertake joint initiatives in the area of curriculum. This became the catalyst for a new national agenda for education.
The Pan-Canadian Protocol for
Collaboration on School Curriculum was adopted by the CMEC in 1995. This protocol recognizes cooperation between provinces and territories can improve the overall quality of education in Canada. The agreement established a process for broad joint initiatives covering curriculum development, assessment, program evaluation, learning resources and technology. Projects developed under this protocol include the Common Framework of Science Learning Outcomes K to 12, the Western Mathematics Curriculum and the Atlantic Common Curriculum. Compliance is voluntary.
International examples of the trend to national standards include:
The Commonwealth Government is developing achievement benchmarks for years 3, 5, 7 and 9 with their National Literacy and Numeracy Plan (February 1998).
Reporting on student achievement against the national benchmarks will begin in 1999.
Professional development for teachers will support the implementation of these standards.
The Department of Education's 1996-99 Corporate Plan
includes an action strategy to "monitor and evaluate policy implementation and the
achievement of national norms and standards in the education system."
Efforts to improve standards of pupil achievement and the effectiveness of schools will be
centralized in the new Standards and
Effectiveness Unit. Schools will be required to set and publish annual
performance targets for students aged 11 and 16.
In a Green Paper dated
May 18th, 1998, the federal government proposes a national assessment program focused on
primary schools. The proposal includes "additional diagnostic tests, more national
exemplar material, externally referenced testing, and more comprehensive national summary
Over the last decade in the U.S.A., standards-based reform of the public education system
has been widely adopted. In 1990, National Education Goals were unveiled. "Goals 2000: Educate America Act" and the
"Improving America's Schools Act" were signed in 1994. Higher academic standards
and incentives to achieve them, along with alignment of curriculum, textbooks and teacher
education are included in these initiatives.
Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mandates the monitoring of knowledge, skills
and performance of American children. This federal legislation requires assessments in
reading and mathematics every 2 years, in science and writing every 4 years and in history
or geography and other subjects selected by the NAEP Board
every 6 years. The data is collected at the national, regional and state levels.
Teachers Divided on Issue
The Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) states as one
of its beliefs, ".. that the
goals society sets for students and schools must be challenging but attainable, and that
progress towards these goals must be measured thoroughly and fairly." However, the
CTF is fuzzy on the specifics of practical implementation and has opposed the national school achievement indicators program (SAIP) as 'narrowing the purposes of learning'.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) passed a resolution in 1996 endorsing "a system of high standards" that included calls
for "standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level" and "exams
administered by the state that measure student progress towards the standards".
Setting Strong Standards (AFT, 1996) makes a case for moving the focus of education standards away from social-behavioral issues and toward academic performance.
The late Albert Shanker, then president of the AFT, wrote in a statement for the Governors/CEO's Education Summit (1996):
"The first essential element in effective school systems is the existence of academic
standards at the national or state level. These specify what students need to learn--and
how well they need to learn it--in each subject at each grade level...National standards
represent a real opportunity for public schools to turn themselves around and win back the
confidence of the people we serve. If we can agree on what we want students to learn, we
can focus our energies, our ideas and resources on helping them achieve. Without standards
we have no way to determine which reform ideas and programs really work."
Policy Issues Raised
Jurisdiction: In countries where education is a state/provincial responsibility, there is concern about national standards lead to a national curriculum and thus undermining state/provincial political authority. This has not proven the case in Germany, a country where each state develops its own curriculum. All states participate in a national test supplying questions suited to the context of their own curriculum.
Controversy around who develops standards is a challenge for policy makers. Business,industry, post-secondary institutions, parents and the public often hold differing views from the K-12 education establishment. Representation from all groups is an essential element when developing and monitoring meaningful standards. Experience in other jurisdictions proves this is a critical prerequisite to the stakeholder support necessary for effective implementation.
Broad and vague standards are of little value. Effective standards articulate clear performance objectives and are strong enough to support rigorous content-based assessment.
Care must be taken to align standards with assessment systems, curriculum, classroom instruction and learning resources.
The evidence suggests national standards must be accompanied by support for continuous progress towards the performance goals. Teacher education and professional development, school practices, allocation of resources and incentives for success are important aspects of policy development.
Developing fair and effective practices around the use of standards and assessments to hold schools, administrators, educators and students accountable is a significant challenge.
Originally published in the Spring 1998 issue of Education Analyst.
Three issues of Education Analyst are published by The Society for Advancing Excellence in Education each year: fall, winter and spring. Subscriptions information available at http://www.saee.ca.
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