Original URL: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/orl-edpbrady02100203oct02,0,6112140.story?coll=orl-opinion-headlines

Education standards flunk `the why' test

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
October 2, 2003
By Marion Brady
Nobody, but nobody, opposes educational standards. Standards -- precise descriptions of what students should know and be able to do -- are a high priority in the No Child Left Behind education-reform program. That, no doubt, is one of the main reasons why the legislation got through Congress with the near-unanimous support of both political parties.

Some senators and representatives are beginning to have second thoughts about NCLB. Their criticisms vary, but nobody questions the value of performance standards.

Some of the criticism of NCLB comes from state capitols. Most state budgets are in the worst shape they've been in for decades, and NCLB is adding to the budget woes. But all the states seem to agree that performance standards are a good thing.

Some of the criticism of NCLB comes from management experts. They're saying that changing education is almost impossible under the best of circumstances, and that trying to do it top-down goes against the advice of just about everyone who knows anything about organizational dynamics. But management experts agree that performance standards are a good thing.

Some of the criticism of NCLB comes from traditional conservatives. They believe the neo-conservatives are taking power away from the states and giving it to Washington. They've always thought that was a bad idea, and they haven't changed their minds. But traditional conservatives think that performance standards are a good thing.

Some of the criticism of NCLB comes from parents. Many don't believe that decisions about grade retention and graduation should be based on a single paper-and-pencil test that overrules the judgment of parents and professionals who've spent hundreds or thousands of hours observing and working with a student. But parents think performance standards are a good thing.

Some of the criticism of NCLB comes from minorities, from the physically handicapped, from those for whom English is a second language, and from those forced to attend falling-down or poorly equipped schools. Is it fair, they ask, to pretend that the playing field is level? That every student whose promotion or graduation hangs in the balance has 20/20 vision, adequate hearing, good teachers, is equally free from hunger or other sources of stress affecting test performance?

Minorities, the handicapped, the English-as-a-second-language students and those from neglected schools think performance standards are a good thing. They just oppose tests that fail to take relevant variables into account.

Educators reading the NCLB fine print see the legislation as part of a truly clever strategy to hang the "failing" label on more schools each year. This, combined with tax cuts, will eventually so undermine faith in public schools that parents will clamor for them to be handed over to private corporations. But educators think that performance standards are a good thing.

Obviously, performance standards are essential.

Which raises a question. A while back there was an effort out in Seattle to require the legislators who put the state of Washington's educational standards in place to take the high-stakes tests based on those standards.

Should they have to do that? I like the idea of forcing policy-makers to get a closer look at the consequences of one of their policies, but their scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) wouldn't mean a thing. Good tests predict, and the WASL can't predict a thing of importance about legislator ability.

And it can't predict a thing of importance about Washington's students.

Why? Because, in both cases, the standards upon which the test is based miss the point. The same thing is true in every state of the Union. There's great faith in the idea of standards, but almost no attention is paid to the standards themselves. If we really cared about standards, we'd demand that every one of them pass an acid test -- provide proof that meeting the standard contributed to the successful pursuit of life, liberty or happiness.

We haven't done that, and so the future of your kids and grandkids is being determined by somebody you never heard of, someone who wrote a standard that hasn't been subjected to the most logical of all measures -- its relationship to success in life.

The critical question for every single standard should be, "Why?"

The question isn't being asked.

Marion Brady, a longtime educator, lives in Cocoa. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel. He can be reached at mbrady22@cfl.rr.com.