Standards Commentary

Chat Wrap-Up: Research on Quality

February 07, 2006 2 min read

On Jan. 25, 2006, Christopher Swanson, the director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, answered questions from readers about student-achievement trends and standards-based education reform. The text-based chat was scheduled as part of Education Week’s recent release of Quality Counts at 10: A Decade of Standards-Based Education.


Mr. Swanson, an expert on high school reform and graduation rates, conducted a regression analysis for Quality Counts that explores the relationship between states’ implementation of standards-based reform policies and gains in student performance. Here is a brief, edited sample of the discussion:

Question: Which three or four states do you believe have achieved the greatest success thus far with standards-based education and reform?

Swanson: Quality Counts includes an extensive analysis of achievement data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that was performed by the Education Commission of the States. This analysis tells us a great deal about progress at the elementary and middle school levels. The report includes special case studies of some states that have been particularly strong performers at these levels over the past decade. These include Delaware, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.

Question: From a statistical point of view, what does it mean when reforms in one subject area produce steady gains state by state, while reforms in another produce a significant percentage of decline?

A full transcript of this chat is online at www.edweek.org/chat/swanson/.

Swanson: Across our analysis, we find a number of places where results look much different for math (typically very strong) and reading (typically less strong). There are two major factors that may be coming into play here. First, math is a more school-based subject, whereas students may be better able to pick up literacy skills outside school. This could make math instruction and achievement more amenable to the influence of policies or other initiatives rooted in the school. The other issue that may be coming into play is the history of the standards movements in math and language arts. Math was an area where there was very early and strong leadership around a standards-based agenda. There was also relatively little controversy. By contrast, English/language arts reforms did not take off as early and were fairly quickly enmeshed in politically charged debates over how to define the “canon” in literature and related issues.

Question: What positive effects has the No Child Left Behind law had on student achievement?

Swanson: I should begin by saying that Quality Counts does not attempt to examine the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s not a referendum on the federal law. But the kinds of policies we have been tracking for a decade now (many of which predate No Child Left Behind) can help us better understand the kinds of standards-based educational principles that the law draws upon. In particular, we find that over the past decade states with stronger policy implementation in the areas of academic-content standards, aligned assessments, and accountability have seen larger gains in student achievement.

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