AFT, Foundation Find Good and Bad in States' Standards

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The quality of standards set by states for what their students should know and be able to do has improved since a year ago, according to an annual report from the American Federation of Teachers.

Like the union's two previous reports on state standards, the new report, released in Washington late last month, grades states on whether their standards are "clear and specific," rather than trying to judge them on the more subjective criterion of whether they expect enough of students. (See Education Week, Aug. 7, 1996.)

A separate report, meanwhile, scheduled for release this week by a Washington-based foundation, takes a stab at evaluating the substance of standards in one core subject--English language arts.

This year's AFT report highlights the states that it says have made the most progress during the past year. California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin "significantly improved" their academic standards in two or more subjects, the report says.

Overall, 49 states--all but Iowa--and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have or will have common academic standards for their students. Thirty-nine of the states have drafted new or revised standards since last year's report.

And, based on the AFT criteria, the standards are more worthy of merit this year, according to the report. Fourteen states produced new standards that are stronger than the versions the union reviewed last year. Only three states came up with standards that were deemed weaker than last year's versions: Mississippi, Tennessee, and Utah.

Most states--29--now have standards that are clear, specific, and well-grounded in content in at least three of the four core subjects of English, mathematics, science, and social studies, the report says. That's an increase over last year's 21 states.

Model States Identified

As it did last year, the AFT also singled out states with exemplary standards. Nine states made this year's list, one more than last year. Virginia was the only state judged to have exemplary standards in all four subject areas, repeating that status from last year. And only two states had exemplary standards in two subjects: California for English and social studies and Florida for math and social studies.

The AFT saw marked improvement in some states in making standards more concrete, said Matthew Gandal, the report's author. Instead of just talking about the importance of "historical inquiry," for instance, Mr. Gandal said, more states are getting better about citing which periods of history or parts of the world they want students to be familiar with.

The standards must be clear to teachers, parents, and others, said Mr. Gandal, the assistant director of educational issues at AFT. But, he added, "we care a lot about rigor, we care a lot about challenging standards, and we're going to continue working on those issues."

While states' standards have improved, Mr. Gandal said, the bad news is that few states are putting in place measures to make them count. Only seven states, up from four last year, require students to meet the standards before being promoted to certain grades, the report says. The AFT also asked top state education officials whether they planned to give students the voluntary national reading and math tests proposed by President Clinton. (See related story, page 1.)

Nine states said they would. That is three more than had, as of last week, formally told federal officials they would do so. Thirteen states said they would "probably" participate. Only Iowa said it definitely would not.

English Standards

In its separate report on state standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington used last year's AFT report as a jumping-off point.

The Fordham report appraises English-language-arts and reading standards in 28 states. It concludes that just five states--Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Virginia--"might be considered to have the strongest set of standards." Compared with a 28-state average of 51 points awarded based on criteria in the report, that five-state group averaged 81.6 points out of a possible 108. Massachusetts scored a chart-topping 94 points.

The next-best-performing group of states averaged 62.8 points each: New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. New Jersey and Kansas fared the worst, scoring in the single digits.

The study was conducted by Sandra Stotsky, a research associate at the Harvard graduate school of education and the Boston University school of education, who has been a teacher and an editor of Research in the Teaching of English, published by the National Council of Teachers of English. She recently co-chaired the Massachusetts committee that rewrote the draft English standards that the state school board adopted in January.

Ms. Stotsky chose documents for examination based on whether they were clear and specific enough to meet with approval in the 1996 AFT report. In addition to standards from those 22 states, she looked at the documents of the most populous states, regardless of how the AFT rated them. She also examined some that had not been highly rated by the AFT.

States could accumulate points by meeting such criteria as what areas within English language arts the standards cover--from speaking to reading--and how demanding they are of students.

State standards lost points if, for example, they imply that the literary or popular culture of this or any other country is monolithic, require that students relate what they read to their personal experiences, or inject a political slant or teach moral or social dogma. New Jersey racked up the most negative points, engaging in everything except political bias, the report says.

The Fordham Foundation supports projects in elementary and secondary education reform.

Vol. 16, Issue 41, Page 13

Published in Print: August 6, 1997, as AFT, Foundation Find Good and Bad in States' Standards
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