Updated June 28, 2011
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.
The underlying assumption of standards-based reform is that all students are capable of meeting high expectations. In a nation that has held students to varying academic expectations according to school and social class, many see standards as the foundation upon which excellence and equity can be built into the nation's public education system.
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,” “basic,” and “below basic,” or by some other performance level.
The newest wave of the standards movement took shape in 2010, when the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association enlisted the support of most states in a project to design a set of common standards in English/language arts and mathematics. Panels of experts drafted them, and states reviewed and revised them. By mid-2011, nearly all states had adopted them, urged on in part by the federal Race to the Top competition, which gave an edge to states that adopted the new learning goals. All but a few states agreed to participate in two projects to design common tests for the new standards as well, financed with $360 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education.
Advocates of common standards and tests argue that standards-based reform—which saw nearly every state adopt its own standards in English, math, social studies, science, and other subjects—had resulted in widely disparate expectations for students because standards in some states were far more clear and rigorous than in others. One study, found that the common standards were more rigorous than those of 33 states (Carmichael, 2010). But another study concluded that they didn’t reflect college expectations and fell far short of what was expected in some high-achieving countries (Wurman and Stotsky, 2010).
Advocates of common tests for the new standards argue that they are needed to set shared, higher achievement standards than the previous state-by-state testing system has done. Because the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allows states to design their own tests and set their own proficiency scores, reaching that “proficient” mark in some places is far easier than in others, leaving vast numbers of students unprepared to thrive in college, the workforce, and the evolving global economy. Disadvantaged students, who have been the most ill-served by weak standards, stand to gain significantly from a system of shared, higher expectations, some advocates maintain.
Many objections have been raised to the common-standards movement, however. Some skeptics take issue with the lack of broad public input into their content, and others fault the new standards’ definition of the skills required for college and career-readiness. Others fear they would hurt disadvantaged students the most because it seems likely that the supports required to help them achieve the new goals would not materialize. Critics in some quarters see the standards as a cut below the much-admired standards in some states, such as Massachusetts. And heated argument has circulated about whether common standards and tests would lead to a homogenized, top-down curriculum, especially after the American Federation of Teachers called for the development of shared curriculum for the new standards. The federal government’s use of incentives and funding to promote common standards and tests also prompted accusations of federal overreach into education decisions, which have traditionally been the province of states and districts.
Regardless of the varying views on common standards, it is clear that implementing them will be a heavy lift. One study found that most states have a long way to go to turn the learning goals into real classroom practice (Kober, 2011). Another study found that most students would fall far short of mastering the standards if tested on them now (ACT, 2010).
Despite state progress in setting academic standards, challenges remain.
Experts remain concerned about whether standards—state or common—are too high or too low. 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 has been strong, there has been increasing frustration with state testing practices. The high stakes attached to tests under No Child Left Behind—for which the new common assessments would be used—continue to spark opposition as punitive and an inadequate measurement of what children know.
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 state standards in place, the expectation had 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. But the reality of state standards fell short of the promise, leaving policymakers still in search of a better lever to improve achievement and equity. Whether common standards turns out to be the answer is, for now, an open question.