Standards: Standards Times 50

Despite all the talk about national standards, each state ultimately must decide for itself what children should learn in schools.
By Lynn Olson — April 12, 1995 24 min read
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“If there is a conflict between the Texas standards and the national standards, this is Texas. And, by God, we would choose Texas standards."--Geoffrey Fletcher, acting executive deputy commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and professional development in the Texas Education Agency.

The U.S. Constitution makes it clear: States bear the responsibility for educating their citizens. They decide how long students continue their education and how the schools are financed. They control what is taught, what is tested, which textbooks are used, and how teachers are trained.

The Standards Movement:
A Progress Report

Overview: Struggling for Standards
Running Out of Steam
Standards Times 50
The View From the Classroom
Missing From The Debate

Thus, despite all the talk about national education standards, it is the 50 individual states that ultimately will determine what students should know and be able to do. If there was any doubt of that, last fall’s elections settled it. The Republicans who won majorities in both houses of Congress are calling for less federal intrusion in state business, including education.

States have heard the calls for improved student performance and are raising expectations for student learning. But what the states have done varies widely. And while most view the emerging national education standards as guides, few feel any obligation to use them.

“The national standards ought to serve as a mirror that we can hold our standards up to,” says Fred Tempes, an associate superintendent in the California Department of Education. “I guess, like most states, we’d like to feel that we can set our own standards.”

As part of Education Week’s special report on standards, we conducted a 50-state survey to find out where states are in their standards-setting efforts. The choices states make will likely influence what Americans expect of youngsters more than any other set of decisions. If national education standards survive, it will be because states find them useful. If states ignore the national models, they will fade into irrelevance.

“People are presuming that the standards movement is falling apart,” observes Marc S. Tucker, the co-founder of the New Standards project, a consortium of 17 states and six urban school districts that is creating a national system of standards and assessments. “It’s a very great misunderstanding of the situation. The real action was never in Washington to begin with.”

Nearly all the states claim they have or are developing standards for what students should know and be able to do in the core academic disciplines.

Forty-six states have applied for federal grants under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act that require them to develop content standards and a related system of assessments. Based on our survey, 31 states began work on what they identify as content standards in 1991 or later. Of those, most are still drafting or reviewing their standards.

Since 1992, the U.S. Education Department has spent more than $24 million to support the development of curriculum frameworks and content standards in 30 states.

Standards-setting in the states “was not on the radar screen very strongly four or five years ago,” says Lauren B. Resnick, the co-director of the New Standards project. “The enormous effort going into setting content standards state by state now was not foreseen when the national efforts began.”

For years, states have had curriculum guidelines or vision statements about what students should learn. But these have ranged from exhaustive lists of objectives to vague exhortations for student performance.

In the mid-1980’s, California became the first state to replace these minimum requirements with a new set of curriculum frameworks that described what students should learn in each subject at each grade level. The frameworks help guide the state’s testing system, professional-development efforts, and textbook selection.

In the early 1990’s, states like Vermont and Maine asked citizens to help draft a “common core of learning” for students. Neither as specific as a curriculum framework nor as sweeping as a vision statement, these documents spell out what students should know when they leave school and the skills and attitudes they should take with them. Typically, they list broad goals and objectives that are not specific to an academic discipline. In some states, however, such documents provide the foundation for today’s standards-setting efforts.

In her book National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide, historian Diane Ravitch identifies three features of the content standards that many states are now developing: They are clear and measurable; they focus on cognitive learning, not affective traits; and they are usually based on traditional academic disciplines.

Based on our interviews, three other things distinguish the current spate of activity at the state level. One is the extensive consensus-building that some states have engaged in to set standards. The second is the attempt by states like California to use the standards to drive other parts of the system, commonly known as “standards-based reform.” The third is the focus on what students should know and be able to do rather than on what teachers should teach.

There are, however, no widely accepted definitions of terms like “content standards” or “curriculum frameworks.” States do not have common criteria for what a good standard looks like. As a result, states use the same words to mean very different things. This situation has led to immense confusion and miscommunication at the national, state, and local levels.

Today, state approaches to standards-setting range all over the map. States call their standards everything from “content standards” to “curriculum frameworks” to “essential learnings.” Some state standards are remarkably succinct, fitting on two sides of a page. Others encompass volume upon volume of detail. In some states, legislators have required that standards be set. In others, the state board of education or the department of education began the process.

Some states have tied their standards to statewide tests, professional development, and graduation requirements; others have not. A surprising number of states are drafting standards without determining whether they will be voluntary or mandatory, how they will be used to measure student performance, or how they will be implemented.

“There is a lot of standards-development activity going on, but it’s very unevenly distributed and highly related to the capacity of states to do it,” says Richard F. Elmore, a professor at the Harvard graduate school of education. “You’ve got everything from very low-level, off-the-shelf stuff to very elaborate, very original, very well-thought-out standards.”

“I see that as a predictable outcome of federalism,” he adds. “It’s just American Government 101.”

In this sea of activity, it’s hard to weigh the influence of the national standards documents. But they have clearly churned the waters. Richard P. Mills, the state education commissioner in Vermont, recalls going to a local school board meeting in Montpelier. “As I looked down the table, as I was waiting to speak, there was a copy of the arts standards and a copy of the geography standards. And somebody else had the science standards. So they’re very much in evidence in local discussions.”

“That’s not to say that happens everyplace,” he adds. “But I think the existence of the national standards debate has been extremely important.”

In our survey, virtually every state claimed to be heeding the national standards as it developed its own documents. None was embracing them wholeheartedly.

Ellen Last, the director of a project to develop content standards for the state of Wisconsin, says, “The national standards are one resource of a number of resources that are available. I don’t think we have too many teachers involved with our project who are just going to take something and say, ‘Gee, these are national standards, and we’d better do everything that is on this paper.’”

In addition to perusing the national documents, states have swapped standards among themselves, dusted off their old curriculum guidelines for schools, turned to their state professional organizations and universities for help, asked citizens what they thought, scoured the best of their district standards, and looked to such national models as the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs and the curriculum frameworks developed for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“We’ll audit our work against the national standards to see where there are gaps in degree or expectation or intent,” says Edward T. Lalor, the assistant commissioner for curriculum and assessment in New York State. “And then we’ll make our own decisions as to whether that gap should be closed, or whether there is a difference in philosophy or opinion.”

Making sense of the national standards at the state level can also feel like tangling with an octopus. There simply are too many documents and too many expectations within each document to be doable.

“My guess is it would take teachers well better than a summer to read them,” complains Barbara Atkins, the supervisor of the curriculum unit in the Michigan Department of Education, “And even then, you don’t know what to do with them.”

“As they stand, there’s no way they could all be implemented,” agrees Joan M. Palmer, the deputy superintendent for school improvement in the Maryland Department of Education. “We’d have to have a 365-day year, at least a 12-hour school day, seven days a week.”

“Each content area obviously saw this as an opportunity to identify those things they felt were very significant,” she adds. “But there are too many things of significance to be pragmatically useful in the classroom.”

Given the lack of restraint at the national level, state officials say they will make the tough decisions about what students should reasonably be expected to know and do.

“It’s very important to us that we boil this down to the absolute and crucial imperatives in the content area,” argues Judith Entwife, who is coordinating standards-setting in fine and language arts for Alaska. “The standards have to talk about things that are so important that we don’t have a lot of them.”

At the national level, there are 18 geography standards and five geographic skills that students must master. Early drafts of the national standards in English/language arts have contained anywhere from 11 to 16 standards. In contrast, states like Alaska, Colorado, and North Dakota have only five or six standards per subject.

“We believe that six standards are a teacher-manageable number,” says Clarence Bina, the director of special projects in the North Dakota Department of Education. “If a teacher can’t manage 16 standards, neither can the students.”

Many states also want to avoid setting content standards that are too detailed. They stress that local school districts have the right to design the curriculum, using the state and national standards as models.

“In Florida, we’re going to leave all the specific content decisions to districts and schools because those decisions are really too difficult to make at the national and state level,” says Doug Tuthill, a teacher who chaired the Florida commission on student-performance standards. “Otherwise, you find yourself debating for 10,000 years how many pages to give to George Washington. You have to make those decisions locally and move them down as far as you possibly can.”

Wayne Martin, the assessment director for the Colorado Department of Education, likes to tell a story about how out of touch he thinks some of the national documents are.

In Colorado, a nine-member council, appointed by the governor, oversees the standards-setting process. One day, the council met to review the national geography standards. “We had to get an unabridged dictionary to figure out if those were real words they were using,” he says. “I know Ph.D.'s in geography who couldn’t meet those standards.”

“I think it would have been much better if all of the groups working on national standards had paid more attention to what states were attempting to do,” he asserts. “We’re striving for a ‘7-Eleven standard,’ where, if I posted these in the 7-Eleven’s across the state, people could read them and understand what they mean.”

State officials also complain about the inconsistencies from one national standards document to another. They vary so much in terminology, format, definitions, and level of detail that it’s hard to know what to make of them.

Just getting some common definitions of terms and an agreed-upon level of detail would help, says Palmer of Maryland. “Right now,” she laments, “you have to read each document very, very carefully.”

State leaders typically reserve their highest praise for the curriculum standards adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989.

The standards are widely recognized as the consensus document in the field. They have withstood the test of time, compared with those in other subjects that have recently been completed or are still under development. They elucidate a new way of teaching and thinking about math focused on problem-solving. Because of those features, many states readily identify their math standards as being modeled after the national ones.

In contrast, states such as North Dakota are quick to distance themselves from the model standards in U.S. and world history. The national standards have been criticized, chiefly by conservatives, as politically biased. North Dakota officials assert they have excised those supposed excesses.

The national education goals identify civics and government, economics, history, and geography as some of the core academic subjects in which students’ performance should be measured. But at the state level, social studies continues to reign supreme. The vast majority of states already have or are drafting standards for social studies. Only a handful are drafting separate standards in each of the disciplines that typically fall under the social-studies umbrella. Whether states are increasing the amount of attention given to history, geography, or civics within their social-studies documents is impossible to tell without looking at the specific standards for each state.

“We’ve decided to be at all usable for local school district officials, we cannot treat social studies as five discrete disciplines,” says Mitchell Chester, the chief of the bureau of curriculum and instructional programs in the Connecticut Department of Education.

In science, states must choose between at least two competing sets of national standards: the Draft National Science-Education Standards produced by the National Academy of Sciences, and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The fact that there are at least two groups fighting for dominance has caused a little concern in the field,” observes Robert Silverman, the administrator of the office of standards and assessments in the Alaska Department of Education.

And in English/language arts, a bedrock of the academic curriculum, states have made do without a national model at all. The International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English are forging ahead with model standards, even after the U.S. Education Department withdrew its funding. But those standards will not be out until late summer or early fall. Our survey indicates that of the 28 states that are still developing standards, 21 will have at least a first draft of their English/language arts standards completed by then.

Some states have also found the national models too tightly linked to the traditional disciplines. Most include barely a nod to the interdisciplinary work that teachers will have to do in classrooms to cover everything.

This shortcoming has proved especially problematic for states like Connecticut, Florida, Maine, and Vermont, whose goals for students span academic subjects.

Vermont’s draft content standards, for example, will include two sections: standards related to a particular discipline and standards like problem-solving and communications that cross disciplinary lines. For the latter, the national standards offer little guidance.

Wisconsin has formed a “curriculum council” of representatives from the various subject-matter groups. The council will try to develop a common framework that will undergird all of the state’s standards and make interdisciplinary teaching easier.

Texas will have a similar team that includes the chairs of its subject-matter committees, as well as specialists in bilingual education, special education, technology, and assessment. They will focus on ways to encourage interdisciplinary work and on issues that cut across subjects. Oregon plans to form a K-3 interdisciplinary team.

A number of states say they relied on the 1991 report of the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, What Work Requires of Schools, to help draft standards that are more interdisciplinary in nature and geared toward workforce requirements.

Given the division of responsibilities between the federal and state governments, the loosely coupled relationship between state and national standards is probably inevitable. But it raises at least two questions for those who believe all children should reach a high, common standard. First, how do states know if their standards are good enough? Second, should there be 50 different sets of standards or do Americans want some consistency?

Do citizens care, for example, if what children learn about science in Iowa differs radically from what they would learn in Mississippi?

“We’re one country,” argues Resnick of New Standards. “We’re very mobile. Kids move. Adults move. I think that what parents want for their kids is to know that they are being given opportunities to learn up to standards that are recognized throughout the country and that they’re being held to it.”

“But people also value the localness of their institutions,” she cautions, “and what we’re trying to figure out is how you can have both.”

Most state officials say they want to compare what they are doing to the work in other states and nations. North Da~kota has sent its English/language arts standards to the education departments in all 50 states for review. Del~aware translated Japan’s science standards into English. More than 20 states attended a recent meeting sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the U.S. Education Department on how to use standards to improve teaching and learning.

“We want to be able to insure that Maine students are challenged to a level where they can compete nationally and internationally,” says Robert Kautz, the director of the division of instruction in that state’s education department. “We can’t do that in a vacuum.”

But while states want help developing their standards, they don’t want federal mandates or a federal judgment about whether their standards are legitimate.

“We really believe that standards-setting should be done locally,” says Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa. “We object to the requirement that the state be mandated or forced by the federal government to do this.”

Governor Branstad has challenged the provisions in Goals 2000 that require states to set content and student-performance standards and to design a related system of assessments. Iowa will not participate in the program, he asserts, unless those requirements are dropped and the power of a national panel to certify state standards is withdrawn. Congress is currently debating changes in the law.

“The federal mandate that states must establish statewide standards to which each school must conform is absolutely unacceptable in Iowa,” Governor Branstad wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to President Clinton.

But even without a federal panel to review standards, many predict the content of state standards will converge naturally over time.

“There ought not to be 50 answers to what is good math for 6th graders,” says Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado. “Therefore, it’s not necessary for each of us to invent the wheel alone. We ought to share information. We ought to share approaches. But we also ought to share a judgment as to how good is good enough.”

The existence of model national standards is not the only force pushing toward such a convergence. The Council of Chief State School Officers is helping states share information through its State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards.

New Standards will release drafts of its performance standards in English/language arts, math, science, and applied learning this summer. The proj~ect is designing its standards for how students should demonstrate what they know at various grade levels to reflect the content standards of its 17 participating states.

Tucker, the project’s co-founder, argues that New Standards represents an “evolving national system of standards and assessments, which permits state and local variation and is close to being finished.”

Over 10 years, predicts Elmore of Harvard, “the states that have standards will look more like each other out of necessity because it’s hard to produce this stuff and you need to have economies of scale to do it.”

But Elmore remains concerned that the push for standards-based reform will result in two separate and unequal groups of states: those that are moving aggressively to set standards and have the capacity to do it well, and those that don’t.

“Ironically,” he argues, “after all this obsession with standards, we may end up with more variability out there than we had when we started. We could end up with a system in which kids in certain states are basically doing what they did 15 or 20 years ago, and kids in some other group of states are doing something completely different. And that, I think, should be cause for concern.”

Robert Marzano, the executive director of the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory in Colorado, argues that many of the state stand~ards he has reviewed are broad and vague. “My experience is they’re not well conceived. Within a state’s document, you might find one group--commonly math--has really done a good job. But another group has used a totally different format, a totally different set of assumptions. And when you try to put together all the work of the content groups within a state, it’s a real jumble. There’s an incredible variation in quality.”

He thinks states need to slow down the speed with which they are setting standards. “States are jumping in so quickly that they’re not addressing the detail issues that are going to kill them,” he predicts.

To get a sense of the variation in detail and sophistication of state standards, just look at these two examples from New Mexico and Delaware. Both address the topic of energy in science.

The first comes from New Mexico’s competency framework for science in grades K-12:

“Using topics from all science disciplines, students will demonstrate an understanding of: energy as it applies to potential sources, forms, conversions, living systems, applications and their effects.”

The second comes from a draft of Delaware’s science curriculum framework:

“Standard 3: The Fundamentals, Effects, and Applications of Energy. Grades 9-12. Concept: Force, Motion, and Mechanical Energy.

1. A force acting on an object moving it through a distance does work on the object and can change the object’s kinetic energy (energy of motion), potential energy (energy of position), or both. The ratio of output work to input energy is the efficiency of the machine or process and is always less than 100 percent. Power is the rate at which the work is done.”

There’s also a backlash against the standards-setting movement in some states that mirrors that raised by outcomes-based education earlier in the decade. Critics complained that many of the student outcomes proposed in states that embraced O.B.E. were vague and nonacademic. And that furor has spilled over into other states.

“The outcomes-based education flap caused us a lot of problems and it shouldn’t have,” says Governor Romer. “What I’m dealing with is hard content, not fuzzy attitudes.”

By law, Colorado districts are required to set local standards that are at least as rigorous as those being developed at the state level. But a bill pending in the Colorado legislature would give districts the option of setting content standards or not.

In Idaho, the new state superintendent of public instruction, Anne C. Fox, has complained that draft standards written before she took office lack substance. The education department is now soliciting greater public input about what should be taught.

In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush has announced that the state should only measure student performance in the core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies, even though the state is developing content standards in other areas as well.

And in Ohio, state officials continue to face a bruising battle in their effort to set standards, after a brush with outcomes-based education in the early 1990’s. “Every time we bring something forward that’s related to the whole area of standards, we begin turning out significant numbers of people who want to watch and speak to whatever we’re doing,” says Ted Sanders, the state superintendent of education.

Despite such hurdles, many state officials insist that setting high and rigorous expectations for student learning is worth doing. And some states are doing it well.

One of those is Delaware. In 1992, Delaware launched a five-year reform plan called “New Directions for Education in Delaware.” It calls for the establishment of challenging, statewide standards and a related system of performance assessments. At the state level, four curriculum frameworks commissions--in math, science, English, and social studies--are drafting standards for content and student performance, and sample performance-based assessment tasks to define “what all Delaware students need to know and be able to do.” Each commission has 45 members, including teachers, parents, administrators, and business and community representatives, and is co-chaired by a classroom teacher. This spring, the standards are being debated throughout the state at a series of public hearings.

The Delaware Education Research and Development Center, housed at the University of Delaware, is leading efforts to develop exemplary teaching and learning strategies linked to the standards that could help teachers apply them in their classrooms. Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, nearly 20 school sites are developing curriculum and instruction techniques for math and science. Nearly 300 Delaware educators have been involved in developing and piloting new assessments in math, science, and English/language arts through the New Standards project.

Local districts have helped the state draft a plan for building their capacity to implement New Directions. Funding is being sought from the legislature for substantial new initiatives in the areas of student equity, professional development, technology, and research and development. The state has also proposed the establishment of new standards and assessments for teachers and administrators that would affect how they are trained, certified, and recertified.

Finally, to reinforce the notion that local school districts should control practice, in 1993, the state board of education removed a set of existing requirements related to norm-referenced testing, curriculum development, textbook adoption, and minimum-competency testing.

Even so, Pascal D. Forgione, the state superintendent of public instruction in Delaware, warns that setting content standards is only the first step in a long and arduous process of reform. In Delaware and elsewhere, communities and schools must still massage the standards and make them their own.

“I think the challenge ahead of us is how to bring life to the standards,” he says, “because this good thinking means nothing if it’s only a document that sits on a shelf.”

Too many educators are familiar with those thick missives from the central office that contain a school district’s curriculum guidelines. Most are opened so rarely that teachers have trouble locating them. That’s not what content standards are supposed to be about.

In an ideal world, such standards would be so clear and compelling that teachers, students, and parents would all know about them and embrace them.

“I think that in the future, when we ask why is this school such a high performer, one of the things we’ll find is clear standards plastered on the wall,” predicts Mills, the state commissioner in Vermont. In the Green Mountain State, he says, “I’m starting to see that many students have internalized pieces of the standards. And teachers have. And to the extent that happens, we’ve all won. And to the extent that the standards debate remains something arcane and at a policy level then we’ve lost. I think we’re going to win.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as Standards: Standards Times 50


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