Standards: More or Less?
In recent reports, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Research Council have called for a “less is more” approach to state academic standards, calling attention to the continued debate on standards-based reform. (“As States Feel Pressed to Revisit Standards, Calls Are Being Renewed to Tighten Them,” Oct. 18, 2006.) This week’s Stat of the Week looks at state efforts to develop and revise content standards, in light of those recent reports.
Quality Counts 2006 found that, as of the 2005-06 school year, 48 states and the District of Columbia had adopted standards in the four core subjects: English/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies/history. The number of states with standards in the core areas steadily increased prior to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act before reaching a plateau in 2002. Those standards range from a few general statements applicable to every grade level to very specific standards and performance expectations elaborated in detail for each grade.
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NCTM’s report examines pre-K-8 math standards and stresses the need for standards that include a smaller number of “targets” for each grade level (“Curriculum Focal Points From Pre-Kindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics,” 2006). The report presents curriculum focal points, or significant mathematical concepts and skills, for each grade level from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. It faults current standards for containing too many unrelated topics and lacking consistent priorities. As a result, too many topics are addressed on the surface level with in-depth instruction on the most fundamental mathematical concepts lacking.
Similarly, the NRC report advocates for science standards in K-8 that focus on a “few core ideas and elaborate on how those ideas can be cumulatively developed over grades K-8,” while eliminating topics less relevant to students’ scientific understanding (“Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8,” 2007). The report suggests that current standards are not going far enough in narrowing the focus of science curriculums.
Another point of view may come from the American Federation of Teachers, an organization that regularly evaluates the quality of state standards. AFT argues for detailed and explicit standards that define both the content and skills students should become familiar with in each grade level (or grade span) and address certain content areas in each core subject (Resnick and Zurawsky, 2005). In 2005, AFT rated mathematics standards in 47 states as clear, specific, and grounded in content in every grade span while science standards in 41 states received this designation. The number of states that receive a favorable rating from AFT has increased over the last few years as the debate over standards-based reform has intensified.
While the new reports add to an ongoing argument for more succinct standards, their timing may be a key in generating change. Accountability provisions in No Child Left Behind have forced many states to revisit their standards documents. Quality Counts 2006 found that 32 states had a cycle or revision process in place to regularly update content standards in the core subjects. This means that the state had established, in regulations, a review cycle or regular process for reviewing, revising, and/or “ratcheting up” state academic standards. As states revisit standards they may consider whether or not to incorporate the perspectives advocated within the NCTM and NRC reports and pare down current frameworks to focus on a smaller number of core ideas.
The National Research Council’s 2007 report, “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8,” is available from the National Academies Press.
To find out more about academic standards in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, access the Education Counts database.
For background, previous stories, and Web links, read Standards.