The underlying assumption of standards-based reform—quite a radical one, if taken seriously—is that all students are capable of meeting high expectations. Student achievement data in the U.S. show long-standing gaps in performance. In a nation where expectations in our schools have varied widely, and where expectations for economically disadvantaged and minority students have been generally lower than for other students, standards are seen by many as the foundation upon which excellence and equity can be built into the nation's public education system.
Setting rigorous academic standards, measuring student progress against those standards, and holding students and educators accountable for meeting them are the essential components of the standards-based reform movement.
Academic standards describe what students should know and be able to do in the core academic subjects at each grade level. Content standards describe basic agreement about the body of education knowledge that all students should know. Performance standards describe what level of performance is good enough for students to be described as advanced, proficient, below basic, or by some other performance level.
Public support for standards is strong. According to a public opinion poll by the Business Roundtable—a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of corporate CEOs—a majority of the American public believes that the effort to adopt standards is "very much" a move in the right direction. According to an Education Week survey in 2000, 39 percent of teachers say that raising standards for what students should learn each year is "very much" a move in the right direction; 48 percent say it is a move that is "somewhat" in the right direction.
States have worked throughout the past decade to put academic standards into place. As of 2001, 49 states and D.C.—all but Iowa— have at least some academic standards. Forty-eight states and D.C. have academic standards in all core subjects—mathematics, English/language arts, science, and social studies.
Despite state progress in setting academic standards, challenges remain. First, there is concern over their clarity and quality. The American Federation of Teachers in its annual report, "Making Standards Matter," found in 2001 that only five states have standards that are clear and specific for all four core subject areas at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Some experts are also concerned about whether standards are too high or too low. In a recent survey, about three-quarters of teachers polled said state standards are "about right" for their students. But only 42 percent of the general public agreed. As standards are being translated into tests and test results used to hold schools accountable, some see built-in incentives to set the bar lower. At the same time, unless standards are realistic and attainable, educators, students, and parents may not take standards seriously.
While public support for higher standards is strong, there is increasing frustration with state testing practices and the high-stakes attached to student performance on tests.
A key concern is how well aligned tests are with the standards they are designed to measure. Many tests are simply not designed to closely match any one state's standards. Another concern is the slowness with which changes to curriculum and classroom practices are implemented. Teachers—and the teachers' unions—complain that there are simply too many standards to cover during the school year, at the expense of creative teaching and learning experiences.
With standards in place, the expectation has been that sound tests, better teacher training, and revised curricula for learning would follow—ensuring that all students received the tools needed to meet higher expectations. With academic standards implemented in all states but Iowa, these next steps in the standards-based reform process demand increased attention. Yet, states' work on standards is hardly finished. If standards are to define high expectations rather than minimal requirements, states need to develop processes for continual review, revision, and "ratcheting up" of standards in order to keep them challenging for all students.