As States Feel Pressed to Revisit Standards, Calls Are Being Renewed to Tighten Them

By Lynn Olson — October 16, 2006 6 min read
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Two prominent national organizations have declared in the past month that “less is more” in state standards for what students should know and be able to do.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in a report on pre-K-8 math curricula, called for an approach that focuses on a “small number of significant mathematical ‘targets’ for each grade level.”

Similarly, the National Research Council argued in a report on science education that state and national standards and curricula should “identify a few core ideas in a discipline and elaborate on how those ideas can be cumulatively developed over grades K-8.”

Such calls for greater parsimony in state academic-content standards are hardly new. But several observers say they come again at an opportune moment. The accountability pressures generated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act are forcing state officials to revisit their standards documents.

At the same time, new research about learning is shedding light on how young people develop their understanding of particular subjects over time, as they acquire progressively more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic. The research about “learning progressions” potentially could lend greater coherence and depth to teaching in schools. (“Science Interest Could Foster ‘Learning Progressions’,” Oct. 11, 2006.)

“What’s a solid backbone that can be identified to which lots of other important concepts can be attached?” said Richard A. Duschl, a professor of education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and the chairman of the committee that wrote the NRC report. “We’ve got all these concepts floating out there, but the whole point of the learning progressions is to attach them to something and have a coherent whole.”

Too Much Content

“Making connections, having kids develop structures in their heads to which factoids can be attached—we know that’s how people learn,” said Senta A. Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, based at WestEd, a nonprofit research agency in San Francisco.

“I think many of us have thought for a very long time that there’s much too much in the national science education standards” devised by both the NRC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she added. “So the result is that we haven’t gotten rid of our 10-pound textbooks.”

Both the NCTM and the NRC acknowledged the shortcomings of state academic standards as currently written.

“As states and local school districts implement more rigorous assessment and accountability systems, teachers often face long lists of mathematics topics or learning expectations to address at each grade level, with many topics repeating from year to year,” says the NCTM report, “Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics.”

“Lacking clear, consistent priorities and focus,” it says, “teachers stretch to find the time to present important mathematical topics effectively and in depth.”

Says the NRC report: “Many standards and curricula contain too many disconnected topics that are given equal priority. Too little attention is given to how students’ understanding of a topic can be supported and enhanced from grade to grade. As a result, topics receive repeated, shallow coverage with little consistency, which provides a fragile foundation for further knowledge growth.”

New science frameworks crafted for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science try to limit the number of core science ideas that are tested, Ms. Raizen said, noting the overlap between the membership of that committee and the one that produced the new NRC report, “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8.”

“Everybody recognizes that we can’t keep trying to do what we do now,” agreed Robert J. Marzano, a senior scholar at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, the federally financed regional laboratory in Denver. “It’s too much. We have to race through stuff in the name of coverage.”

Mr. Marzano has worked with a number of states and districts to help identify a core set of standards that can guide instruction. “When you get committees representing subject areas at a state or national level, it’s impossible,” he said. “If I’m representing science, I don’t want to leave anything out.”

In contrast, he said, teachers are much better at identifying what’s most important at their grade levels.

The 6,200-student Valparaiso Community School District in Indiana, for example, has spent the past two years identifying “power standards” that students need to build knowledge in each course. Teachers then produced learner outcomes for those standards as part of a new standards-based curriculum and grading system that they’re piloting this year. Classes that once had 75 to 100 learner outcomes now have 28, said John Hutton, the assistant superintendent.

“The teachers are much more comfortable with this because there was always so much pressure that they needed to cover all these things, and they were not going into as much depth as they needed for kids to learn,” he said.

Wyoming Experience

At least one state—Wyoming—has recently tried to identify a set of “high priority” content standards that should be tested and reported standard by standard for each student, school, and district as part of its new Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students.

The idea is to provide more clarity for educators and parents about what students need to learn and which of the assessed academic-content standards they have attained. The first reports based on the new tests were released last month.

“They’re kind of useful because it does break the student’s performance down into a set of subskills,” said John A. Metcalfe, the assistant superintendent of the 1,725-student Fremont County School District Number 1. But, at this point, he said, “at least for our district, we haven’t seen any advantage.”

One problem, he noted, is that the new measurement descriptions haven’t replaced the state’s existing content standards or benchmarks. “It’s added another document that we have to figure out how it aligns with all our existing stuff,” Mr. Metcalfe said.

Jane F. Schielock, an associate dean for education at Texas A&M University in College Station, who chaired the writing team for the NCTM report, said that while many people recognize that state content standards are too voluminous, cutting them down is tough.

The last time Texas tried to revise its math-content standards, she said, “we made a very conscious attempt to try to pare down the curriculum.” But after people started complaining about topics that had been left out, “we ended up putting everything back in.”

State departments of education are also reluctant to identify a core set of content standards, said Mr. Marzano, “because they feel it would start to dictate curriculum. I’ve always said, if they just did it as a model, it would help.”

International Models

Certainly other countries have no such compunction, said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University who has written extensively about standards. As an assistant U.S. secretary of education during the elder Bush administration, she commissioned several subject-matter groups to write voluntary national standards and urged them to draw on international models.

“Long ago, when I first saw the Japanese standards, I was very impressed by their clarity, coherence, and centrality (meaning fewer but more substantive in content),” she wrote last week in an e-mail. “As I have read state standards over the years, I have been struck by how verbose and vague they are, by contrast.

“Teachers in a Japanese classroom can read the standards and know what is expected of them,” she said. “Their counterparts in a U.S. classroom are not likely to have that luxury and must figure out everything for themselves.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as As States Feel Pressed to Revisit Standards, Calls Are Being Renewed to Tighten Them

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