INSIDE IOWA STATE
June 8, 2001
One nation, one curriculum
by Kevin Brown
You can't test quality in. You build it in and test to see if it is
there. Betty Steffy and Fenwick English, both professors of educational
leadership and policy studies, believe this notion is the hope for
The key to improving student education, they assert, is to develop a
national curriculum and then test that core concepts are being
The husband and wife team, who do several school assessment studies each
year around the country, published a book earlier this year on testing.
Deep Curriculum Alignment -- Creating a Level Playing Field for All
Children on High-Stakes Tests of Accountability focuses on the Texas
educational system. It takes to task current standardized testing theories
and the tests' impact on both student learning and esteem.
They use Texas -- a state that ties funding to performance on standardized
tests -- for their research and include urban, suburban and rural school
districts in Houston, Austin, Dallas and other communities.
The couple draws upon their professional experiences in reviewing current
testing practices. Steffy served as deputy superintendent of instruction for
the Kentucky Department of Education (1988-1991) during a major overhaul of
that state's system. The new system now is considered a model for the rest
of the country.
English served as vice-chancellor for academic affairs at Indiana
University, Purdue University, Fort Wayne (1996-1998). Both are former
school principals and superintendents.
"This book is as contemporary as you can get," English said.
"It is a balanced view of the pros and cons of testing, particularly as
used in Texas."
An example in Texas
On the pro side, they like Texas' emphasis on ensuring that minority
achievement equals majority student achievement. That forces teachers and
administrators to attend to at-risk learners. However, they are critical of
the inconsistency in curriculums throughout Texas and, indeed, the
The absence of consistent content in core learning is a major flaw of
standardized testing, the couple agrees. For example, every state requires
students to study state history, geography and other "local"
topics, sometimes to the detriment of more universal education
"This is a peculiarity of the American approach to education,"
English said. "It is a function of local control of education. For
example, should states require one year of, say, Mississippi history, in
place of world geography? This is unique to America."
Steffy and English point out that most other industrial countries --
including Germany, Japan and Finland -- have national curriculums and
produce students who score consistently higher than American students in
areas such as math, science and geography.
A current political and parental theory is that a lack of testing is the
reason for this general poorer performance by American students, the couple
"Many people believe the way to achieve better schools is by testing
more often," English said. "But, you don't get a better pig by
weighing it more often. You achieve a better pig through a well-planned
nurturing program. The same is true for education."
"The new (federal) administration's approach to education seems to
point in that same direction," Steffy said. "They seem to favor
testing, testing and more testing until everyone gets it right. The reality
is, you just can't test quality in."
Separate funding and test performance
A negative impact of using testing as one means to control education
funding is that learning "fields" aren't always equal. Differences
in things such as school district wealth, local cultures, home environments
and parental involvement are ignored when all schools are judged under the
same guidelines. This establishes a system in which poorer school districts
continue to fall behind or concentrate so much on teaching "testable
material" that educational value and understanding is lost to
"Withholding funds to school systems that don't show test gains
doesn't work because tests and curriculum are not directly matched,"
Steffy said. "The same is true for paying teachers according to student
test scores. You might have the most committed teacher in a district working
in a classroom where other learning variables -- access to materials,
parental involvement, economic status -- carry more weight in lowering test
scores than that teacher's ability to instruct. Such policies just reinforce
And at the other end of the spectrum, higher-performing classrooms or
schools could be penalized for success on early tests, because it's much
harder to make gains in the 90th-percentile level than in the
60th-percentile area, she said.
"The bottom line is, you have to teach what you test and test what
you teach," Steffy said. "Parents think tests teach what is
important and they don't do that. Politicians and parents have a comfort
level with testing because there is this supposed magic in numbers -- like
testing can offer a quick fix. It is just a single measure of
"If hard work alone could get all students to the same place,"
English said, "we'd be there by now."
Both Steffy and English said a national curriculum would negate many of the
weak points of standardized testing by providing a level educational
"If all children are learning the same things, issues such as race,
socioeconomic status and poverty cease to be significant to the
argument," English said.
Betty Steffy and Fenwick English argue for a national curriculum in their
new book. Photo by Michael Haynes.
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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