Clinton seeking national standards for schools Goal is to find the trouble spots that need attention across the country

February 24, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In its first major initiative on education, the Clinton administration intends to establish the first national academic standards for American schoolchildren, so that the performance of students from all social levels and regions of the country can be gauged against the same uniform goals.

The standards would attempt to merge what is now a patchwork of vastly different, subjective -- and in some cases, non-existent -- standards in school districts and states across the country.

Education planners say the initiative would enable educators and governments to identify countless trouble spots that are now escaping attention and determine exactly what improvement is needed for the students in them.

Secretary of Education Richard Riley intends to outline the plan to Congress today in his first extensive testimony on the Clinton administration's education agenda.

While most other administration programs for youth are still in the rhetorical or pilot-program stage, this one is being shaped into legislation for introduction to Congress in the next few weeks, administration officials said.

It strikes one of the president's most popular themes -- better preparation of American youth to compete in a tougher job market.

The Clinton administration plans to use the standards and assessments to spearhead educational reform and to "restructure education so that its main mission is performance," one official said. The legislation now being drafted would provide grant money to states, communities and schools committed to designing strategies that would enable all students to meet these high standards.

While no figures are yet firm, the administration has proposed expenditures of $870 million for reforms and initiatives in 1994, of which the standards and assessments are just one part.

The plan represents a significant departure from the traditional role of the federal government in education, which has largely been limited to paying for programs that help economically and academically disadvantaged children.

Despite the enthusiasm among some educational planners, other experts argue that national standards actually would have a negative impact on achievement, because the only standards that could be universally agreed upon would be too low to inspire any real improvement.

"They will set standards that are not worth shooting for," said H.D. Hoover, the senior author of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, standardized exams taken by millions of children from kindergarten through eighth grade. "Then, teachers will start teaching to those low standards."

Testing is a favorite ploy by politicians, he added, because it is relatively inexpensive. The Clinton administration, for example, hopes to reap wide-reaching benefits from the standards and assessments, while dedicating only minimal funds to the project.

But the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which in 1989 established national standards for math and has just begun designing national assessments to complement them, has a different view. James Gates, the council's executive director, said that such tests help "give youngsters throughout the country equal footing" and make "educational opportunities more equal from state to state and community to community."

"The education of every child is a necessity for us to compete in a world economy and remain strong," Mr. Gates said. Forty states and the District of Columbia have adopted or are developing a state math curriculum that use the council's principles.

Many educators say that through the decades American public schools have failed to teach too many students the academic skills needed to perform demanding jobs. Such failures were not tragic for the country in the days when it needed many unskilled workers, they say, but now there is an economic imperative for all students to have sharper academic skills.

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