The school reform movement—the decades-old bipartisan drive to improve public education with standards and high-stakes tests—might seem, on the surface at least, to be running out of steam. Its crowning achievement, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which shook up public schools after it was passed in 2001, is now widely seen as flawed and in need of a massive overhaul. Yet efforts to do so have been stalled for years on Capitol Hill because of political disagreements over how to proceed. With reform in limbo, the Obama administration has been reduced to passing out Get Out of Jail Free cards to countless school districts that face penalties for failing to meet the law’s strict targets for improvement. Meanwhile, liberals who were always uncomfortable with using standardized tests to judge student and teacher performance are increasingly in revolt against the whole school reform movement. And conser vatives who never liked the increased federal role in education brought by NCLB are agitating for a return to local control.
Yet looks can be deceiving. The truth is that the standards-and-testing model of school reform is far from dead. In fact, it’s about to kick into a new high gear, in ways that will alter what happens in the nation’s classrooms as fundamentally as NCLB did, and probably more so. Unlike previous waves of school reform, which were debated in Congress and covered in depth by the press, this next one is the product of compacts among states and a quiet injection of federal money—and has therefore garnered almost no national attention. Consequently, few Americans have any idea about the profound changes that are about to hit their children’s schools.
The reforms will unfold in three stages, each of which is explored by an article in this report.
In the first stage, already well under way, almost ever y state is instituting something called the “common core standards,” a demanding new set of shared benchmarks that define what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. These benchmarks will replace a jumble of widely varying and often weak state standards that have hitherto guided America’s schools.
The second stage, hard on the heels of the first, is the development of a new set of high-stakes tests based on these new standards. These tests are already being crafted by university and state education department experts across the country, and are scheduled to be rolled out beginning in 2014. They will be fully computerized and far more demanding than anything most American schoolchildren have ever experienced.
The third stage, now being dreamed up in university and corporate labs, will see the rise of new kinds of computer-based learning software, often in the form of games, in which testing happens automatically as students play and work. When this software becomes available for classrooms a decade or more from now, learning and assessment will meld into a single process, and high-stakes testing as we know it will virtually disappear.
All three of these efforts are at -tempts to fix the flaws in the current standards-and-testing regime—the chief flaw being that it creates incentives for schools to aim too low. Existing state standards tend to force teachers to cover too much material shallowly. And existing tests tend to be cheap multiple-choice exams focused on assessing basic skills rather than higher-order thinking.
Of course, an alarming number of students lack those basic skills, especially poor and minority students. And the current standards-and-testing system can claim some credit for putting a significant dent in that problem. Since 1992, when states first started seriously imposing standards and high-stakes tests, African American eighth graders have gained 26 points, and Hispanic eighth graders 22 points, on the math portion of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. That means both groups are roughly two and a half grade levels above where they were in 1992, a stunning if seldom-acknowledged improvement. Reading scores haven’t risen as much: 12 points for black eighth graders, 13 for Hispanics. Still, that’s more than a grade level higher than where these groups were twenty years ago—real progress.
The problem is that teaching and testing for basic skills also tends to lead to a dumbing down of the curriculum and to endless drilling for tests, which frustrates teachers, parents, and students alike. It also does little to improve students’ ability to think critically and independently, solve complex problems, apply knowledge to novel situations, work in teams, and communicate effectively—abilities that students must have to succeed in college and, increasingly, the modern-day workplace.
Getting schools to impart these “deeper learning” capacities is precisely what the new wave of school reform aims to achieve. And there is good reason to hope the reforms work, because in many ways the competitiveness of the U.S. economy depends on it. On the Programme for International Student Assess -ment (PISA), a widely used international test that measures higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, the United States falls in the middle of the pack among thirty-four developed countries in reading and science, and ranks below the average in math.
In a sense, this is nothing new. As far back as 1964, U.S. students scored relatively poorly in math and science compared to those in other nations. But we made up for deficiencies in quality with volume: for decades, America graduated a far larger percentage of its citizens from high school and college than did any other country. That advantage in degree attainment, however, has disappeared as other countries have caught up. The U.S. now ranks twelfth in the world in the percentage of its twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds with post-secondary degrees. We’ve fallen behind not because U.S. high school graduates aren’t going on to college—that number has risen consistently—but because the percentage completing college has hardly budged. That’s a sign, in part, that too many U.S. students are leaving high school ill-prepared academically. All of this is happening, notes labor economist Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University, at a time when the globalization of labor markets and the elimination of routine jobs—even reasonably skilled ones—by digital technology means that more and more jobs in the future will require creativity and higher-order-thinking skills.
Is it possible for a large, highly developed nation to make the kinds of changes necessary to boost the critical- thinking skills of its students? Consider the case of Germany. In 2000, Germans learned that their schools, which were long assumed to be first rate, ranked below the average when compared to other countries on the PISA, largely because of the poor quality of schooling offered to less-advantaged citizens. The shock of that news led to a series of reforms, including common national academic standards and new assessments tied to those standards. The result: from 2003 to 2009 Germany added 10 points to its math scores and 6 points to its reading scores on the PISA—on a scale in which 500 is the international average.
That may not seem like much, but over time such progress can deliver huge economic gains. In a 2010 study, economists Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich found that differences in PISA scores and similar measures of cognitive skills explain a great deal of the difference in growth rates among advanced economies from 1960 to 2000. They further calculated that if the United States could raise its average PISA score 25 points by 2030, it could increase its GDP by $45 trillion over the lifespan of children born in 2010.
Could the new tests and common core standards be the secrets to achieving results like this? Obviously it’s too early to say. But it’s hard to think of another set of government policies already in the pipeline that could more dramatically impact the long-term strength of the U.S. economy. So it’s all the more curious that the new tests and standards have garnered almost no press attention, especially in a presidential election year in which the future of the economy is front and center. That’s a testament not only to the way these policies slipped in under the political radar, but also to the fact that writing about abstruse subjects like norm-referenced testing and PISA scores is hard to do (believe me). But as Washington Monthly contributing editor James Fallows once wrote, the mission of serious journalism is “to make what’s important interesting.” By that definition, the authors of the three pieces in this report—Robert Rothman, Susan Headden, and Bill Tucker—have produced very good journalism indeed.