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State Academic Standards Are Set Too Low, A.F.T. Report Concludes

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While 49 states are working to create academic standards, most have set their sights too low and have no plans to require students to meet them, a report released last week by the American Federation of Teachers concludes.

The report, "Making Standards Matter: A 50-State Report on Efforts To Raise Academic Standards," argues that high standards offer an opportunity for the public schools to turn themselves around and win back public confidence.

"Over all, this is a very encouraging report," Albert Shanker, the president of the union, said in releasing the report. "There's still time to fix what's wrong."

The teachers' union asked five "crucial questions" of state officials to determine whether states were pursuing the route it considers most likely to lead to high standards. Every state but Iowa has either set standards or is in the process of developing them, the report found.

The A.F.T. wanted to determine whether standards are grounded in the core academic subjects, clear and specific enough to provide guidance in the development of a core curriculum, linked to assessments, tied to graduation requirements for students, and benchmarked to world-class levels.

Links With Assessment

Most states consider the traditional academic disciplines to be the focal point for standards development, the report found. But some are combining disciplines, abandoning them altogether, or setting standards in "critical thinking" or "problem solving" without reference to a subject.

"In our view," the report says, "these are not standards at all." While interdisciplinary study may have value, the teachers' union believes such studies should be a "pedagogical decision rather than a broad policy imperative."

States with vague standards, expectations too heavily focused on skills rather than content, or unclear guidelines for what courses all students should take in each core subject received failing marks from the A.F.T.

Only 13 states have set standards "strong enough to carry the weight of the reforms being built upon them," the report concludes. Among the states with the clearest, most specific standards, it says, are California, Colorado, Georgia, and Virginia.

For standards to be applied consistently across a state, the report argues, states should develop assessments aligned with the standards. Although 31 states plan to connect their standards with assessments, 18 will be basing their tests on weak standards, the report says.

"It's unfair and completely unproductive to be nebulous in the standards," the report says, "but then hone in on specific content in the assessments."

Few states plan to create incentives and consequences for students to work hard and strive for the standards--a "disturbing finding," the report says. Only Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, and South Carolina reported that their students would be expected to meet 10th-, 11th-, or 12th-grade standards to graduate.

The 14 states that base graduation on minimum-competency tests, the report urges, "must ratchet up their requirements."

Finally, only Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Utah have taken steps toward matching their standards to those used in other nations.

Without such comparisons, the report says, standards cannot legitimately be called "world class" and might be set too low for the Unites States to be economically competitive.

Because it is so difficult for individual states to make such comparisons, the report suggests that a national commission be appointed to show what world-class standards look like in core subjects.

States Respond

The report includes written responses from officials in 12 states, some praising the union's report and some taking issue with its findings.

Thomas C. Boysen, the former education commissioner in Kentucky, disagreed with the A.F.T.'s judgment that his state's standards were too vague, noting in his response that the "total system of standards and assessments" must be examined.

Robert A. Fallon of the Indiana education department wrote: "It appears that the A.F.T. study embraces a rather lock-step approach to curriculum. Making all the decisions about content at the state level robs teachers of a role in curriculum development."

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