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Standards Opinion

We’ve Always Had National Standards

By Diane Ravitch — January 07, 2010 8 min read
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Most educators believe that the United States has never had national standards in education, but this is not correct. Without any action on the part of the federal government, we have indeed had standards in the past, and we have them now. They were not written in a document, nor are they now, but they are real nonetheless.

In the late 19th century, the standards identifying what students were expected to learn in each grade could be found in their textbooks. The books from different publishers were virtually interchangeable, because publishers dutifully copied one another’s best-selling products. In every school subject, teachers in different states taught students what was in the textbooks for each grade.

For the primary grades, the standards of that era leaned heavily on rote memorization and the student’s ability to figure things out (especially in mathematics) in his head. While standing in front of the class, for example, a student might be given a computation problem—“reduce to their lowest terms: 12⁄16, 24/36, 16⁄28, 28⁄49, 32⁄36”—and then be expected to answer on the spot, without the help of pencil and paper. In geography, he might be expected to recite the names of the continents, or the capital cities of every state, or the principal rivers in each region of the nation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, only a tiny proportion of students entered high school. As enrollments grew, high schools looked to the entry requirements of colleges to determine their standards. Even though only a small percentage of students planned to enroll in college, the best private and public high schools geared their standards to those needed for college preparation. At that time, everyone who went to high school, whether the child of a farmer or banker or tradesman, was in the college-preparatory curriculum.

High school principals frequently expressed frustration that each college had its own admission requirements and its own examinations. Some required students to read selections from Julius Caesar, others from Ovid or Homer or Virgil. How confusing it was to prepare a graduating class of 20 for the examinations of several different colleges.

In 1899, the leaders of the nation’s top colleges joined to create uniform curriculum standards and uniform examinations for college admissions. The result was the College Entrance Examination Board, which offered its first exams in 1901 to 978 students. The tests of chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, Latin, history, mathematics, and physics contained no multiple-choice questions, only essays and demonstrations of knowledge.

In English, 10 classics were assigned in advance for students to read, including “The Merchant of Venice,” The Vicar of Wakefield, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” The Last of the Mohicans, and Silas Marner. Students were told that they would be tested for their power of clear expression more than for their minute knowledge of these works, but they were also expected to have closely studied a few works, such as “Macbeth,” Milton’s “Il Penseroso,” and Edmund Burke’s speech “Conciliation with America,” and to be ready to answer in detail any questions about them.

Every two or three years, the reading list was revised by teachers and college professors, but it always consisted of classics drawn mainly from American and English literature. Teachers across the country knew well in advance which works would be on the exams, and they prepared their students accordingly.

Standards without curriculum is like a bird without wings. It is not skills alone that prepare young people for college, work, and life, but knowledge as well.

The tests were prepared by committees of teachers from high schools and colleges. They were graded by teachers, who reviewed student answers together to develop common standards for grading. Over the years, the teachers who participated in grading college-entrance examinations developed more than common standards; they developed a sense of community and collegiality, a shared sense of responsibility for what students were expected to learn before entering college. This spirit of professionalism may have been one of the most important results of the creation of the College Board.

The College Board’s examinations established common standards for American education, and not just for college-bound students. The board raised standards for teachers and students alike, because its work was so widely respected. The board understood that its examinations provided the backbone for educational standards in the nation’s schools; it accepted this role as its responsibility and mission.

Although “the boards” became a rite of passage, their hegemony was challenged by the rise of mass-produced standardized tests in the 1920s and 1930s. Prominent psychologists, who developed the new objective tests, considered the “college boards” obsolete and unscientific. The College Board, hedging its bets, hired Carl Brigham, one of the developers of mass intelligence tests (and who was also well known for his belief in innate differences based on race and ethnicity), to lead a committee to develop an experimental standardized test for college admission. The Brigham project eventually produced the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was offered on a trial basis in 1926.

The much-esteemed “boards” set the standards until 1941, when the leaders of the College Board suspended them on the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. From that day forward, the Scholastic Aptitude Test—devised by psychologists and machine-scored—replaced the written examinations that had prevailed for four decades.

There were major differences in terms of standards. The old “boards” took responsibility for establishing curriculum standards; the new SAT boasted that it was curriculum-free. The old “boards” were curriculum-based; they tested knowledge and skill. The new objective tests rewarded vocabulary and reasoning ability, not knowledge.

I have long harbored a theory that American education thrived for many years because of the teachers and professionals who had experienced the “boards,” and that the demise of the boards was not fully felt for a generation. When scores plummeted in the early 1960s, the hidden reason (I speculate) was that their influence had waned. We were left rudderless.

What took the place of the boards? The testing industry and the textbook industry became our standards-setting agencies. Tests cannot be administered unless test developers have some idea of what students have learned. So test publishers studied textbooks and course materials to figure out what to test. Since there was no curriculum, the safest bet was to test skills, not knowledge.

In 1983, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, called on schools and states to establish a strong curriculum and higher graduation requirements. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened a summit of the nation’s governors to set national goals for education, one of which was that all students would master challenging academic studies by the year 2000. That President Bush attempted to promote voluntary national standards, but in 1994, a huge controversy over the voluntary history standards made it seem an impossible task. The standards became embroiled in bitter disputes about multiculturalism. Elected officials took heed and shied away from any discussion of national standards for years.

Even without any explicit national standards, test publishers must assume the existence of consensus about what students know and can do. In the absence of any common curriculum, they cannot assume that students have read anything in particular, but they can assume that they have been taught certain skills. In mathematics, the test publishers take their cues from state frameworks and adopted textbooks, where there is some agreement on what students may have had the opportunity to learn.

Today, a consortium of impressive private organizations, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, is attempting to forge common standards for the nation. It is far too soon to predict the outcome of this initiative, but the participants clearly perceive the need for some national definition of what students should know and be able to do.

I have a few pieces of advice for the standards-setters:

  • One, any standards that emerge must be tested somewhere before they can be considered worthy of emulation.
  • Two, recognize that any standards must be voluntary, as there are schools and districts that will never accept external direction about what their students should learn; it’s a free country, and they should retain their freedom to ignore official pronouncements.
  • Three, acknowledge that English/language arts and mathematics are only a starting point, and that any education worthy of the name must include science, the arts, history, foreign languages, civics, and other important studies. This does not mean that all those subjects should be tested, but that all of them must be recognized as central elements in a sound education.
  • Fourth, please bear in mind that standards without curriculum is like a bird without wings. It is not skills alone that prepare young people for college, work, and life, but knowledge as well. I would not rest easy with any curriculum that did not include a list of essential readings that all young Americans should know. Some say that it cannot be done, because we would never agree. This is not the case. Start with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address; Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his “I have a dream” speech; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms inaugural. It can be done.

The two greatest risks of the current effort to set common standards are that they will be so prescriptive they will be resisted, or they will be so vague that they can easily be ignored. Either course would be likely to end in failure, and neither would promote the rich, full education that our students need.

This is the Scylla and Charybdis that confront today’s standards-setters. Let’s hope they are as successful as their predecessors of the early 20th century.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

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