The Use of Evidence in the Draft Standards

By Sean Cavanagh — July 24, 2009 2 min read
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The folks drafting common academic standards have pledged that the process will be shaped by research, and a quest for evidence of what works in English and math instruction. What qualifies as high-quality research, of course, is often a matter of opinion. But the early, leaked version of the document offers some insights on the authors’ thinking, as it pertains to math.

The math section of the draft document explains that the authors have built on “a generation of standards efforts” let by states and national organizations. Evidence from many sources, they say, indicates that math standards should be focused on “deeper, more thorough understanding” of crucial math ideas. In reaching this conclusion, they cite 1) international examples from high-performing countries; 2) surveys of college faculty; 3) and data on student performance. (Check out the language yourself, on page 23-24 of the math portion.)

Yet the authors also say standards can’t be crafted simplistically, based on any one source of evidence. “It’s more accurate to say that we used evidence to inform our decisions,” they explain. In one math example, the authors say that while their review showed that the topic of linear equations is a fixture in state standards, students perform surprisingly poorly when assessed in that area on the ACT. The group determined that linear equations have high value, mathematically: High-performing nations emphasize it. College faculty value it. So the panel included it.

The draft also makes an interesting point about the discrepancy between academic standards and what students actually get out of instruction:

“The evidence tells us that in high performing countries like Singapore, the gap between what is taught and what is learned is relatively smaller than in Malaysia or the U.S. states. Malaysia’s standards are higher than Singapore’s, but their performance is much lower. One could interpret the narrower gap in Singapore as evidence that they actually use their standards to manage instruction; that is, Singapore’s standards were set within the reach of hard work for their system and their population. Singapore’s Ministry of Education flags its Web page with the motto, “Teach Less, Learn More.” We accepted the challenge of writing standards that could work that way for U.S. teachers and students: By providing focus and coherence, we could enable more learning to take place at all levels.”

I’ve culled just a couple examples of how the authors appear to be broaching questions of evidence. There’s much more to see in the document itself. Once you’ve read over that section, give me your review.

And for language arts, there’s a footnote on the first page of that section, which links to the evidence and background documents cited by the authors to develop core standards in reading. Similar pages for for writing, and for speaking and listening will come later, the document says.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.