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  • To Dream the Impossible Dream

    Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for Americas Schools

    C h e s t e r E . F i n n , J r. ,

    L i a m J u l i a n , a n d M i c h a e l J . P e t r i l l i

    Eli BroadCynthia BrownMichael Cohen

    Robert GordonFrederick M. Hess

    Gene Hickok

    Sandy KressJames PeyserDiane Ravitch

    Andrew RotherhamSuzanne Tacheny

    Bob Wise

    W I T H

  • With

    Eli Broad

    Cynthia Brown

    Michael Cohen

    Robert Gordon

    Frederick M. Hess

    Gene Hickok

    Sandy Kress

    James Peyser

    Diane Ravitch

    Andrew Rotherham

    Suzanne Tacheny

    Bob Wise

    August 2006

    To Dream the Impossible Dream

    Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for Americas Schools

    C h e s t e r E . F i n n , J r. ,

    L i a m J u l i a n , a n d M i c h a e l J . P e t r i l l i

  • TABLE OF CONTENTS

    Executive Summary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

    Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

    Model #1: The Whole Enchilada . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15

    Model #2: If You Build It, They Will Come. . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

    Model #3: Lets All Hold Hands . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

    Model #4: Sunshine and Shame . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

    Afterword: Our Preference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35

    Appendix A: Contributors. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38

    Appendix B: Questions Asked of Contributors . . . . . . . . . . 42

  • E X E C U T I V E S U M M A R Y . . . . 1

    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

    For the first time in almost a decade, people are seriously weighing the value of

    instituting national standards and tests in American K-12 education. Yet despite

    many pervasive and commonsense reasons (explained below) to support such a

    reform, two large obstacles loom. The first is political: a winning coalition must

    be assembled, probably by a presidential contenderno small challenge, con-

    sidering that the failed attempts of the 1990s to create national standards and

    tests left a bad taste in many politicians mouths. The second obstacle is sub-

    stantive: until policymakers can envision what a system of national standards

    and tests might look like, how it would work, and how its various logistical

    challenges might be addressed, this idea will remain just that. This report

    addresses the second obstacle and, in so doing, also helps with the political

    challenge. Once the key design issues are hammered out, it will be easier to

    tackle ideology and votes.

    To gather input on how a system of national standards and tests might be

    designed, we queried a bipartisan selection of prominent experts. We knew that

    we would not agree with all of their views, nor would they agree with all of

    ours. But we certainly benefited from their varied and informed opinions and

    were profoundly grateful for their cooperationand their willingness to tackle

    this topic in public view. We asked them to answer a series of questions (see

    Appendix B) ranging from the macroshould the federal government design

    the teststo the micro (e.g., ought the tests be given annually?). As we pon-

    dered their responses, certain patterns became clear. Within their excellent

    advice and good ideas are four distinct approaches to national standards and

    tests that we describe and appraise in the following pages:

    1. The Whole Enchilada. This is the most direct and aggressive approach. The fed-

    eral government would create and enforce national standards and assessments,

    replacing the fifty state-level sets of standards and tests we have now. The United

    States would move to a national accountability system for K-12 education.

  • 2. If You Build It, They Will Come. This is a voluntary version of the first model.

    Uncle Sam would develop national standards, tests and accountability metrics,

    and provide incentives to states (such as additional money or fewer regula-

    tions) to opt into such a system. A variant would have a private group frame

    the standards. Either way, participation would be optional for states.

    3. Lets All Hold Hands. Under this approach, states would be encouraged to

    join together to develop common standards and tests or, at the least, com-

    mon test items. Uncle Sam might provide incentives for such collaboration,

    but thats it.

    4. Sunshine and Shame. This model, the least ambitious, would make state

    standards and tests more transparent by making them easier to compare to

    one another and to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

    In this paper, we outline how each model might work in practice, and we eval-

    uate the likelihood that each would:

    End the race to the bottom

    Result in rigorous standards rather than merely politically acceptable ones

    Expand Washingtons role in education

    Prove politically feasible.

    2 . . . T O D R E A M T H E I M P O S S I B L E D R E A M

  • E X E C U T I V E S U M M A R Y . . . . 3

    Figure 1: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests

    Is it likely to End the Race Result in Rigorous Expand the Prove Politicallyto the Bottom? Standards? Federal Role? Feasible?

    The Whole Enchilada Yes Maybe Yes No

    If You Build It,They Will Come Probably Yes Maybe Maybe

    Lets All Hold Hands Maybe Probably No Maybe

    Sunshine and Shame Maybe No No Yes

  • INTRODUCTION

    Its no secret that we, at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, favor national

    standards and testsprovided they are done right. We believe they are needed

    now more than ever. But as policy analysts have begun seriously to debate the

    idea in recent months and a few politicians have begun (at least privately) to flirt

    with it, a sure conversation stopper kept getting in the way. Someone would

    ask, So how exactly would this work in practice? Tumbling from their lips

    would be five, ten, a dozen legitimate and important questions about the imple-

    mentation of this basic idea. Who would write the standards? The federal gov-

    ernment? Congress or the Department of Education? What would happen to

    state standards and tests? Which subjects would you test? How often? Who

    would deliver the results? How would this intersect with No Child Left Behind?

    And on and on. We quickly realized that for this idea to advance beyond the

    domain of wishful thinking and knee jerk reacting, someone would have to take

    a stab at answering such questions. This is our attempt.

    Recent history illustrates the need to address these design problems. Mistakes

    can be costly. President George H.W. Bush watched his ambitious plan for

    national standards sink after his administration outsourced the job to profes-

    sional organizations of educators such as the National Council of Teachers of

    English. President Bill Clinton found his voluntary national tests proposal

    lampooned by concerns over student privacy, overweening government involve-

    ment, and fuzzy math. If tomorrows political leaders are to tackle this topic,

    they will need a plan thats fully baked.

    We knew we could not flesh out these design issues alone, so we called upon a

    dozen eminent colleagues from left, right, and center. Some are scholars, others

    policymakers. Some support national standards and tests while others abhor the

    notion. All, however, are thoughtful, creative, and experienced policy entrepre-

    neurs. And they did not disappointtheir lucid and insightful comments are

    found throughout this report. (Short biographies are available in Appendix A.)

    I N T R O D U C T I O N . . . . 5

  • We started by posing twelve important questions that one would have to answer

    if he or she were serious about actually implementing national standards and

    tests. (The questions are listed in Appendix B.) We sent these stumpers to our

    esteemed experts and solicited their responses. What we received surprised us.

    First, many of our colleagues showed themselves to be more skeptical about the

    project of national standards and tests than weor even theyassumed they

    would be. Second, as we sifted through their answers, we noticed some pat-

    terns. Four distinct approaches to national standards and tests, rose to the sur-

    face, each with its own pluses and minuses. Fleshing out and evaluating this

    quartet of models became the purpose of this report:

    1. The Whole Enchilada. This is the most direct and aggressive approach.

    The federal government would create and enforce national standards and

    assessments, replacing the fifty state-level sets of standards and tests we

    have now. The United States would move to a national accountability sys-

    tem for K-12 education.

    2. If You Build It, They Will Come. This is a voluntary version of the first

    model. Uncle Sam would develop national standards, tests and accountability

    metrics, and provide incentives to states (such as additional money or fewer

    regulations) to opt into such a system. A variant would have a private group

    frame the standards. Either way, participation would be optional for states.

    6 . . . T O D R E A M T H E I M P O S S I B L E D R E A M

    Until policymakers can envision what a system of

    national standards and tests might look like, and how it would

    work, this idea wi