Are our schools failing? Students from high-income families outscore nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our high poverty children score below the international average. The US has the highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries. Our schools have been successful; the problem is poverty.
The first priority should be reducing poverty. Poor diet and lack of reading material seriously affect academic performance. When all our children have the advantages that children from high-income families have, our schools will be considered the best in the world.
Comparisons: An argument for standards and tests is that they allow comparisons. We can do this now. The NAEP is given every few years to samples of children, the results extrapolated to determine how different areas are doing. We need not test every child; the doctor does not have to take all your blood to get an accurate picture of your health. Let's improve NAEP and not start all over again.
Dangers of narrow, rigid standards: Everyone understands the value of having some common baseline benchmarks as well as the value of assessment. The push now is for narrow and rigid standards and widespread testing. Secretary Duncan's goal is to ensure that all children know where they are "on every step of their educational trajectory" at all times.
The tests will become the curriculum, promoting a rigid scope-and-sequence approach not in tune with how children learn.
Research shows that many "skills" are acquired when we do other things, not through "study." Most of our knowledge of concepts and facts comes from our attempts to solve problems. Nearly all of our educated vocabulary and our ability to write accurately and coherently, comes from wide reading.
It is impossible to teach all "skills" as discrete items; the systems to be mastered are too complex and large. Attempts to do this dominate and drive out activities that help children the most.
Over-testing promotes a culture of school as test-prep, with a focus on increasing test scores, not real learning.
21st century skills: New developments are nearly always a surprise. The best path is to make sure children are prepared for a wide variety of options and opportunities and develop individual talents. This means broadening the curriculum, not making it narrower.