u_topn picture
flashome picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar
Educational Measures

September 17, 1997

The battle now being waged between the Democrats and the Republicans over the question of educational standards and testing is a familiarly partisan one. Here's President Bill Clinton, speaking two weeks ago: "I think every American -- Republicans, Democrats, Independents -- should favor high standards. I think people from all backgrounds should want all of our children to learn at a high level." Who can take issue with a message that lacking in substance? The Speaker of the House, for one. Here's Newt Gingrich, delivering his own brand of hot air in blasts of three: "The President is focused on the wrong end. He's focused on Washington bureaucracy, Washington regulations, Washington red tape.... We believe he ought to be focusing on local parents, local students, and local teachers."

During the past two decades, as a counterpoint to these sorts of uninformative political exchanges, The Atlantic Monthly has periodically published articles that have explored the history, the context, and the implications of educational standards and testing in this country. The questions raised are much more nuanced and complex than Clinton and Gingrich would have us believe.

The subject of educational standards came up as a central concern recently in The Atlantic, when, in "What Should Children Learn?" (December, 1995), the educational historian and activist Paul Gagnon argued that

Life Adjustment, "greening," the open classroom, "back to basics," career education, "futures learning," global consciousness, "doing-a-value," critical and creative thinking, and "outcomes-based" education (are there other kinds) -- not one of these has ruffled the establishment or gotten beneath the surface to substantial subject matter, and so not one has improved the schools of most American children. Indeed, by leaving weary teachers awash in the debris from successive tides of obsession and indifference, they have made things worse.
Gagnon made an impassioned plea for the implementation, at the state level, of "standards-based reform" based on "the idea that democratic education requires a rigorously academic core for every student."

Most recently, this past spring Atlantic Unbound made the issue of educational standards the subject of one of its Executive Decision features, "Who Should Set the Standards for Our Schools?", in which experts in the field delivered opposing opinion papers. Readers were asked to make a policy decision as though they were the President of the United States. Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty introduced the feature by laying out the options.

Some argue, as do Frank Levy and Richard Murnane in their memo to you here, that tough standards are the only way to make sure that students obtain the necessary skills to succeed in today's high-tech work force. Others believe that standards can make things worse, and their case is both philosophical and pedagogical, as Theodore Sizer, who has spent his career looking at what goes on in the classroom, argues in his books and in his memo to you.

Parents are of two minds (at least) over standards. They want them -- but not if it means that Suzie can't graduate with her class because she's flunked her mandatory standards' exam. What if -- and it's a defensible estimate -- 40 percent or more of the kids in their local schools failed the standards exams? Parents would be up in arms. And the leader who talked them into standards would take the heat.

Still, if standards are not the way out of educational mediocrity, what is?
The answer to Beatty's final question, many have argued, is increasingly focused and rigorously applied testing. But as this country's educational testing programs have developed, so have the claims that they are inadequate and even unjust.

Seventeen years ago, when the Educational Testing Service (ETS) was thirty years old, James Fallows wrote "The Tests and the 'Brightest': How Fair are the College Boards?" (February, 1980). Fallows took a penetrating investigative look at the claim that -- as James Loewen, a sociologist from Catholic University's Center for National Policy Review, put it -- "standardized tests are the greatest single barrier to equal opportunity, at least in the sphere of education." The accusations of inequity and bias against minorities and the poor were mounting at the time of the article -- and so, too, Fallows wrote, was the evidence.

Loewen has compared the median incomes of the fifty states and the District of Columbia with the National Merit Scholarship "cutoff score" for each state.... "Connecticut has the highest cutoff, and Mississippi the lowest," Loewen says. "It is intriguing to note that Connecticut is the richest state in the nation, and Mississippi the poorest." All in all, he says, his list and the College Board's match perfectly; there is a .83 correlation between them -- about as close a relationship as statisticians ever expect to find.

These patterns strongly suggest that what the tests measure is exposure to upper middle class culture -- perhaps even the culture of the professional class of the east coast.
Picking up fifteen years later where Fallows left off, Nicholas Lemann published a two-part story -- "The Structure of Success in America" (August, 1995) and "The Great Sorting" (September, 1995) -- in which he explored in detail the history of the ETS. Lemann's articles are a vivid and painstaking historical account of the sometimes ambiguously motivated origins of one of this country's most influential and unscrutinized institutions. The ETS's tests, Lemann wrote, "have influenced and in many cases determined the careers of millions of people including many of those who will provide the national leadership of the future. As an institution of national scope dealing in the guidance of human lives, it has no close parallel in our society."

  • Discuss this feature in The Body Politic forum of Post & Riposte.

  • See the Flashbacks archive.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
  • Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search