Introduction

The past 15 years have seen a growing concern in the United States over the quality of the nation's educational system. A Nation at Risk, released in 1983, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983:5). In this report and in the discussion that it inspired, the assumption that the United States seemed to be doing so poorly at educating its children was based in part on comparison with other nations. International studies of educational achievement have repeatedly indicated that American students do not excel in comparison to their counterparts in other countries (Elley, 1992; International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1996a and 1996b; Lapointe, 1992). At the 1989 education summit, the President of the United States and most of the nation's governors for the first time articulated a set of education goals that included an explicit call for international competition, that American students should be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement by the year 2000” (National Education Goals Panel, 1995:12). In response, vigorous efforts have been initiated at the national level and within many states to define new content and performance standards in these and other subjects. In providing federal support for these efforts to define standards, the U.S. Congress called for standards that would be “internationally competitive and among the best in the world.” These policy directives did not, however, settle the question of how any set of standards might be made internationally competitive.

The drive for education standards that can help American students to compete with the top students around the world grows out of a shift in the United States' view of its place in the world. Other calls for education reform—such as those following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, for example—have centered around the need to maintain military preparedness. With the end of the Cold War, however, improved schooling has come to be seen as a way of fending off external economic threats. Innovations in technology and communications have drastically changed the nature of work and the economic relationships among nations. It is in this context that human capital, and hence the quality of education, have moved high on the American political agenda.

Businesses have developed increasingly sophisticated ways of comparing their processes and products to others around the world. One of those, the concept of benchmarking—measuring one's own practices against those of others—has had a substantial impact on education policy makers. Benchmarking academic achievement and setting high standards for students have come to be viewed as prime elements in the reform of U.S. schools. Many people believe that holding U.S. students to internationally competitive standards of performance can ensure that they will grow into workers who are capable of mastering new technologies and who can help the nation



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--> Introduction The past 15 years have seen a growing concern in the United States over the quality of the nation's educational system. A Nation at Risk, released in 1983, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983:5). In this report and in the discussion that it inspired, the assumption that the United States seemed to be doing so poorly at educating its children was based in part on comparison with other nations. International studies of educational achievement have repeatedly indicated that American students do not excel in comparison to their counterparts in other countries (Elley, 1992; International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1996a and 1996b; Lapointe, 1992). At the 1989 education summit, the President of the United States and most of the nation's governors for the first time articulated a set of education goals that included an explicit call for international competition, that American students should be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement by the year 2000” (National Education Goals Panel, 1995:12). In response, vigorous efforts have been initiated at the national level and within many states to define new content and performance standards in these and other subjects. In providing federal support for these efforts to define standards, the U.S. Congress called for standards that would be “internationally competitive and among the best in the world.” These policy directives did not, however, settle the question of how any set of standards might be made internationally competitive. The drive for education standards that can help American students to compete with the top students around the world grows out of a shift in the United States' view of its place in the world. Other calls for education reform—such as those following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, for example—have centered around the need to maintain military preparedness. With the end of the Cold War, however, improved schooling has come to be seen as a way of fending off external economic threats. Innovations in technology and communications have drastically changed the nature of work and the economic relationships among nations. It is in this context that human capital, and hence the quality of education, have moved high on the American political agenda. Businesses have developed increasingly sophisticated ways of comparing their processes and products to others around the world. One of those, the concept of benchmarking—measuring one's own practices against those of others—has had a substantial impact on education policy makers. Benchmarking academic achievement and setting high standards for students have come to be viewed as prime elements in the reform of U.S. schools. Many people believe that holding U.S. students to internationally competitive standards of performance can ensure that they will grow into workers who are capable of mastering new technologies and who can help the nation

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--> prosper. The movement to define and impose such internationally competitive standards has been welcomed by many constituencies concerned about the failings of American schools. Recent national polls have found wide support for the idea that students and schools should be held to high academic standards even if that means that some students will fail to meet them, and even if serious consequences (such as not graduating from high school) are attached to failure (LeMahieu and Bickel, 1996:9–10). Vast numbers of scholars, educators, and interested citizens have participated in the process of developing national and state standards for most of the subjects taught in kindergarten through high school. The national standards are voluntary—states are invited to adopt or modify them as they choose, and many have done so. To date the vast majority of the 50 states have adopted their own specific academic standards or are working to establish them, and a number of studies and reports have documented these efforts (Education Week, 1997; American Federation of Teachers, 1995b). The President recently called for voluntary national tests in reading at grade four and mathematics at grade eight, to be based on the frameworks that guide the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The mathematics test is to be linked to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study so that the performance of American students can be benchmarked to that of students around the world (see box on p. 3). …the notion of international competitiveness is a dynamic sort of notion. It's not a static thing; it's not criterion referenced. Countries can get better. Andrew Porter These circumstances might be interpreted as evidence that the education community in the United States has a fairly robust notion of what internationally competitive standards for students and schools might be, but such is not the case. Many of the national standards documents have provoked continuing vigorous discussion and disagreement. In some subjects competing standards have been developed by different groups. Numerous constituencies have criticized the standards that have been developed for a dizzying variety of reasons. Indeed, the first version of the standards for U.S. history was formally repudiated by the U.S. Senate. Moreover, the content and performance standards that have been adopted by the states vary significantly in purpose, form, content, and rigor. State education communities are struggling to define and implement standards that are appropriately challenging and to address a host of related issues. One issue is that what people mean when they talk about standards can vary significantly. Others include: How might formal academic standards fit into an education system? Just how high should performance targets be? How can one tell how high they are? How have others set standards, and what are they? By what means should the United States—or a particular state—compare itself to others? To whom should the comparison be made? Both local communities and scholars have been struggling with these kinds of questions for some time, and many valuable insights

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--> International Comparisons—The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Based on presentation by Mary Lindquist The TIMSS study, which provides mathematics and science achievement data for students at three age levels from around the world, is the largest and most complex international comparative study ever undertaken. The study was designed to produce not only data on student achievement, but also a variety of information about the contexts in which student learning takes place. Background questionnaires completed by students, teachers, and administrators were designed to produce data about educational practices, attitudes, school characteristics, and other factors. These data can be correlated with achievement data so that possible relationships can be identified. A monumental study of curricula and textbooks used around the world was also part of TIMSS. In addition, two studies sponsored by the United States explored contextual factors in the United States, Germany, and Japan in greater detail. One of these was a videotape study of classroom practice; the other was a set of ethnographic case studies that explored some of the attitudes and experiences of students at the middle school level.* While the analysis of the results of TIMSS is still under way, the results that have been released have played an important role in the ongoing discussion of internationally competitive standards. TIMSS, Lindquist noted, will make it possible not only to identify countries with high-achieving students, but also to use information from the teacher questionnaires, the curriculum study, and the two qualitative studies to develop a picture of educational practice in those countries. She reminded the group that one significant outcome of the Second International Mathematics Study (SIMS) was its influence on the widely respected National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. SIMS suggested that clear standards would be beneficial, and this was one impetus for the development of the new mathematics standards. It also provided the basis for many of the specific recommendations that went into those standards. For Lindquist the value of TIMSS lies less in the international benchmarks it provides than in the opportunity it provides to generate more questions. Because TIMSS was based on a framework negotiated among approximately 40 countries, it is not particularly well aligned to the curriculum of any one of them. Consequently, the student achievement benchmarks it provides are somewhat vague. Lindquist noted further that the achievement rankings alone offer no guidance on ways to improve teacher practice and student learning. Her hope is that the contextual information about teachers' lives, instructional practices, curricula, and other issues will provide clues for reform that leads not just to further research, but also to focused reflection and improvement among teachers. *   For more information about TIMSS and the reports that are available, see the following sites on the World Wide Web: http://www.ed.gov/NCES/index.html, http://ustimss.msu.edu./, http://wwwcsteep.bc.edu/timss, and http://uttou2.to.utwente.nl/, or write or call the International Study Center: CSTEEP, Campion Hall 323, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167, (617) 552–4526, or the National Center for Education Statistics, TIMSS Project, 555 New Jersey Ave. NW, Suite 02A, Washington, DC 20208, (202) 219–1333.

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--> have emerged. The Board on International Comparative Studies of the National Research Council sponsored a workshop on November 6, 1996, to take stock of what has been learned about making education standards internationally competitive and to examine why the criterion of international competitiveness has been so difficult to articulate and to apply to education standards. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together a variety of people, as both presenters and observers, who have thought creatively about bringing the idea of international competitiveness to school reform to share their perspectives and to discuss ways of keeping the process moving forward. (See Appendix A for the list of participants.) The agenda of the 1-day workshop was structured around presentations that focused on different perspectives and on the emerging body of empirical evidence on internationally competitive standards. (See Appendix B for the workshop agenda.) The board commissioned three papers for the workshop to aid in sorting out some of the conceptual issues, and these were the focus of the first half of the workshop. One paper (by Paul LeMahieu and William Bickel) explored what people mean when they call for internationally competitive standards. A second (by Alan Ruby) provided an international perspective by reviewing key aspects of the Australian experience with standards. The third (by Robert Floden) tackled the question of implementing standards by reviewing recent work on teacher practice with regard to standards. (See Appendix C for a list of the papers presented at the workshop.) In the second half of the workshop two panels explored perspectives on particular international benchmarking efforts. One focused on the experiences of three states that have incorporated an international context into their standard-setting efforts: Colorado, Illinois, and Maryland. The other provided a forum for discussion of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the international benchmarks developed by the New Standards Project, and the business community's approach to benchmarking. The panels were designed to permit considerable discussion by participants and presenters alike, some of which has been woven into the main sections of this summary. In addition, boxes interspersed through the text provide synopses of the information conveyed by each of the panelists. Approximately 80 people, including representatives from national organizations with a specific interest in education standards, university researchers, and education policy makers attended the workshop. Their participation was a key component of its success, in particular because thoughtful questions asked throughout the day helped to link some of the major themes. The purpose of this document is to provide a summary of the issues that were explored at the workshop.