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Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Many States' Standards Add Up to 'D' in Review

Many States' Standards Add Up to 'D' in Review

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Though most states have set content standards in the core subjects, more than half of them deserve a D, or worse, for their efforts, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

"The present 'state of state standards' is bleaker than we had hoped--and than the country needs," concludes a highly critical report released by the Washington-based foundation this month. "Too many standards are vague. Too many are hostile to knowledge and infatuated with 'cognitive skills.' Most are entranced by 'relevance' to students' lives, effectively subordinating education to current events and contemporary culture." And, it continues, their weakness is a "grave threat to standards-based education reform."

For More Information

"The State of State Standards" is available for free by calling the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's publication service at (888) TBF-7474.

"The State of State Standards" summarizes five earlier reports issued by the foundation over the past year that expressed similar disappointment in state standards for mathematics, science, history, geography, and English--the subjects identified by President Bush and the governors at the 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Va., as the core of the curriculum. The overall grade for each state is based on the ones each received in the five subject areas that were evaluated.

"The same thin gruel that characterized most of the national standards also oozed into many state documents," Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Foundation and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan, said in a statement.

The standards were judged on specificity and rigor and other criteria established by the authors of the individual reports, each deemed expert in the respective subject. While several states received high marks in one or two subjects, none earned an A overall. Twenty-one states were given D's for their standards, while nine failed. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia received a grade of C, and three--Arizona, California, and Texas--earned B's. Three states did not receive grades. Iowa does not intend to write standards, while Nevada and Wyoming did not have standards available for review.

Lessons Learned

Some standards experts said that the grades should not get the most attention.

"Standards-setting is a relatively new enterprise," said Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group formed by the nation's governors and top business leaders to help raise academic standards.

"We chose to look beyond the grades to read about the underlying issues and lessons learned," said Mr. Gandal, who wrote several annual reports on state standards for his former employer, the American Federation of Teachers.

The Fordham Foundation report is intended to help states improve, not to damn their efforts, Mr. Finn said in an interview. He said the evaluation criteria listed in the report can guide states in revising and completing their standards.

A summary document includes a section on lessons learned from reviews of the subject standards. It points to pressures from various constituency groups involved in the standards-writing process, the conflict between state standards and local control, and political pressures that flare up over accountability.

The authors also note the importance of treating academic-content standards as the starting point in the creation of a complete accountability system, to be followed by performance standards and assessments.

"We do worry a little bit that states are going to tend to treat good content standards as the end of the matter," Mr. Finn said. Without the other elements, "it's like having a fine recipe in the cookbook, but not actually cooking."

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 12

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