Standards Explainer

What’s the Purpose of Standards in Education? An Explainer

By Sarah Schwartz — July 31, 2023 11 min read
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For almost the past four decades, academic standards have been a defining focus of efforts to improve student achievement.

The movement for high academic standards—determinations of what students should know and be able to do across subjects and grade levels—promised to center teaching and learning on common themes across schools and raise expectations for all students. Standards have shaped the teaching and learning landscape in American schools, dictating everything from curriculum content to assessment design.

They have also been, and continue to be, a site of controversy and political battles.

In this explainer, Education Week breaks down what standards are, how they have come to occupy such a central place in the U.S. education system, and how they have—and have not—changed instructional practice and student outcomes.

What are standards?

Academic standards—sometimes called content standards—describe what students should know and be able to do in the core academic subjects at each grade level. They can cover skills, such as adding and subtracting within 100, or content, like understanding the roles of the three branches of government.

Standards are not a curriculum, though. They don’t outline the day-to-day lessons and activities teachers use; rather, they provide an end goal for instruction.

States set academic standards and school districts are required to teach to them. Most states revise their standards every 5-10 years, a process that usually involves convening panels of writers from different parts of the education system, opportunities for public comment, and several rounds of drafts.

There can be big differences in focus and rigor between different states’ standards in the same subject—something that helped pave the way for the drive for common, national standards in English/language arts and math (more on this below).

There are also differences in grain size. Some standards are very specific. Take, for instance, Tennessee’s social studies standards, which name historical figures, documents, and discrete events that students should know at each grade level. Compare these to Maine’s social studies standards, which focus mainly on overarching themes, trends, and eras.

Finally, academic standards are distinct from performance standards, which define the level of achievement that students need to reach—often on a standardized test—to be described as “proficient” or not.

Still, academic and performance standards are connected. In theory, performance standards measure to what degree students have mastered the content and skills outlined in the academic standards.

Why are standards important?

The underlying assumption of standards-based reform is that all students are capable of meeting high expectations. In a nation that has held students to varying academic expectations according to school quality and social class, many advocates saw standards as a foundation upon which excellence and equity could be built into the nation’s public education system.

Setting rigorous academic standards, measuring student progress against those standards, and holding students and educators accountable for meeting them are the essential components of the standards-based reform movement. Whether or not they have helped to raise the quality of American education remains a subject of heated debate.

In 1983, a national commission convened by the U.S. Department of Education published “A Nation At Risk,” sharply criticizing the state of curriculum and instruction in U.S. schools. The seminal report declared that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

The report triggered a tidal wave of concern, critique, and policy change. Throughout the 1990s, states began to write their own academic standards. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush signed the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to test students’ mastery of those state-crafted standards annually.

President Ronald Reagan addresses a meeting of teachers and administrators in Washington from outstanding secondary schools across the nation on Aug. 27, 1984.
President Ronald Reagan addresses a meeting of teachers and administrators in Washington from outstanding secondary schools across the nation on Aug. 27, 1984.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Federal Explainer A Nation at Risk
Jennifer Park, September 10, 2004
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In his 2021 book Beyond Standards: The Fragmentation of Education Governance and the Promise of Curriculum Reform, Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, outlines the theory of change behind the standards-based reform movement. The standards would set the vision and the framework for instruction. States would then support schools in achieving that vision, by creating aligning assessments, recommending curricula, and offering professional learning for teachers.

Nearly every state adopted standards in English, math, social studies, science, and other subjects. Still, some advocates and researchers argued that the quality of the standards developed after “A Nation At Risk” varied too widely state by state, resulting in widely disparate expectations for students depending on where they lived. In 2008, influential policy groups called for a “common core” of national standards in English and math.

These standards, they said, should be more tightly focused, so that students learned about a smaller range of topics with more depth. They should be more rigorous, introducing advanced topics at earlier grade levels. And they would be coherent, with each grade’s content building toward the next and avoiding repetition.

The Common Core State Standards were born from this effort.

What are the Common Core State Standards?

In 2009, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association launched an initiative to create common national standards in English/language arts and math.

Panels of experts drafted them, and states reviewed and revised them. Within a few years of their 2010 release, 46 states and the District of Columbia had adopted them. All but a few states also agreed to participate in two projects to design matching, shared tests for the new standards as well, financed with $360 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

But in the following years, the standards saw a strong backlash. By 2017, 11 states had announced that they were replacing the Common Core or doing a major rewrite.

The standards became a political lightning rod in several quarters. On the left, critics worried that common standards would lead to a top-down, homogenized curriculum that stifled teacher professional autonomy. On the right, critics accused the federal government of overreach into education decisions.

(The standards were national in scope, created and adopted by states. They weren’t federally mandated. The federal government is prohibited from creating any program that directs the curriculum of schools. But then-President Barack Obama’s Education Department did give states incentives to adopt new “college- and career-ready standards” as part of grant program.)

For a deeper dive into the Common Core State Standards, see this explainer.

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The standards are still a site of partisan politics.

Running for election in 2016, former President Donald Trump said his administration would be “getting rid of Common Core.” That’s not something that a president can do, as the federal government can’t force states to abandon any particular set of standards.

Many states still use the standards, or have replaced them with standards that are very similar.

Do higher standards improve student achievement?

Most evidence suggests that, at least on their own, they don’t have a big effect. But it’s also hard to measure this question because standards reform often takes place at the same time as other changes.

Between the 1990s and the 2010s—the height of the standards-based reform era—scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress generally trended upward. But this period also saw the implementation of No Child Left Behind, for example, which put in place accountability measures that required districts and schools to offer additional services, change governance, or take other improvement steps if groups of underserved students didn’t make progress.

Recent research on the effects of the Common Core has been mixed.

One federally funded study, published in 2019, compared different groups of states that had adopted the Common Core. One group of states already had standards similar to CCSS, so adoption didn’t shift their standards much. The other group of states had to make sweeping changes.

The researchers found that in states where standards changed the most, students’ performance actually declined slightly in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math.

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But another study, published in 2021, found a positive effect of the Common Core by comparing states that implemented the standards earlier to later implementers. This research found a positive initial effect on math scores. But this effect was not evenly distributed, with economically advantaged students benefiting and economically disadvantaged students showing no difference.

A decade after states started implementing the standards, some education researchers and policy experts have argued that the focus on standards without as much attention to curriculum was misplaced.

In Beyond Standards, Polikoff argues states should step up quality control of curriculum materials—and that even curriculum-focused instructional reform can’t succeed unless the field addresses foundational, structural inequities that are baked into the education system as it currently operates. In another 2021 book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding the Failure of the Common Core, Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Loveless also suggests a greater focus on curriculum and instruction, the “technical core” of the classroom.

Both of these books highlight an important limitation of standards: Even under the same state standards, district-level—and even classroom-level—decisions about materials and methods can lead to big variations in the quality of instruction that children receive.

Some of the architects of the standards movement have made similar points, arguing that states should be doing more “quality control” when it comes to curriculum materials. Achieving that coherence is the next part of the agenda, they have said. Some states have started to exert more control in this way.

Researchers claim that this kind of coherence could lead to better student outcomes. And in interviews with researchers from the RAND Corporation, teachers said that they valued knowing what goals they’re supposed to meet, and what roadmap they’re going to use to get there.

Are there other national standards?

While the Common Core State Standards have received the lion’s share of attention and commentary, the common-standards movement touched other subjects beyond ELA and math.

There are the Next Generation Science Standards, released in 2013. Developed by a bipartisan network of 26 states and several research and professional organizations, the standards outline what K-12 students need to know about physical, life, and earth and space sciences.

The standards aim to center scientific investigation, integrating science and engineering practices alongside content knowledge. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards. (Read more about NGSS here.)

See Also

Image of books on history.
thomaguery/iStock/Getty
Social Studies Explainer Who Decides What History We Teach? An Explainer
Sarah Schwartz, August 11, 2021
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Then there’s the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, developed by state leaders and 15 social studies professional organizations. These standards emphasize historical inquiry and civic participation. They focus more on skills in the discipline than on content, however—states that use them would have to decide which historical figures, events, and documents students should study.

In art, there are the National Core Arts Standards, adopted by at least 14 states. There are also National Sex Education Standards.

None of these standards are mandatory for states to adopt. Even so, most have set off heated debates—both about their approach to instruction, and the content they cover or omit.

Why are standards so political?

Deciding what’s important for children to learn is inextricably linked with values and norms. Sometimes, these choices about teaching and learning get caught up in partisan politics.

In 2021, conservative pundits and Republican politicians began a campaign against what they perceived as inappropriate discussion of race and racism in social studies classrooms. They argued that teachers were overemphasizing histories of oppression and suffering, and making white children feel guilty for the racial injustice woven throughout America’s past.

This political movement upended the social studies standards revision process in several states that had scheduled updates planned that year, resulting in volatile working sessions and thousands of angry public comments.

Decisions about teaching techniques can strike a nerve, too.

That’s what happened with the common core’s approach to math instruction. Teaching to the standards meant using new strategies like “decomposing,” or breaking numbers into parts that are easier to work with, and “making 10,” or finding combinations of numbers that add up to 10 to solve addition and subtraction problems.

Many of these techniques, which aimed to cement children’s conceptual understanding of number relationships, were unfamiliar to elementary school parents. Politicians and late-night comedians alike ridiculed these new ways of teaching.

Debates about standards cut to the core of some of the biggest issues in education: What do we think children should know about the world? How can schools best prepare them to succeed later in life?

These questions are complex and involve high stakes—and as such, will likely always court controversy.

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