Only 15 states have academic standards worthy of a passing grade, according to a report card on state standard-setting prepared by the American Federation of Teachers.
In its evaluation, however, the union mainly examines how specific a state has been in spelling out its standards for what students should know and be able to do. It skirts the issue of rigor, specifically the question: Are the standards intellectually challenging? As a result, some states whose high student academic achievement has landed them at the top of other national rankings get grades from the AFT comparable to states that fared poorly on previous rankings.
Though experts on standards-based reform said they found the AFT's approach lacking in some respects, they praised the union for taking on the task, noting that it is the only group that has taken a stab at judging each state's precollegiate standards and making the results public. Given the dearth of other widely circulated evaluations, they said, the AFT document, Making Standards Matter, has the potential to influence state policymakers and the general public.
The report, the AFT's second on the subject in as many years, does not claim to address all issues related to standards-setting. "While we do not attempt to judge the overall quality or rigor of the content covered in each state, we do point out obvious holes," the paper states.
"If you're not clear and specific, you can't even make a judgment," said Matthew Gandal, a senior associate in the AFT's educational issues department and the author of the report. "The first step needs to be clarity, specificity, and content. Then you can judge whether it is rigorous or not."
The AFT looked at whether a state was developing standards in the four core areas--math, science, English, and social studies; whether the standards were clear and specific enough to provide the basis for a core curriculum; whether the standards included the subject's body of content; and whether the standards were benchmarked by grade level.
The union also asked states if they had consulted international standards; whether they were devising an assessment system linked to standards; and if they planned to use the assessments to determine grade promotion or graduation. Few states reported having such high-stakes testing, although 20 said they plan to require a graduation exam based on state standards.
New to this year's report was a subject-by-subject analysis. By adding that breakdown, the union was able to get a more subtle reading of a state's efforts. The report, for example, deemed Maine's science standards satisfactory but not its English, math, and social studies standards.
The AFT also asked states whether they require or provide extra help for students who have trouble meeting the standards. Only 10 said they do.
Almost every state told the union in the report that they are strongly committed to standards-based reform. But based on its criteria, the AFT identified only 15 states that have clear and specific content-grounded standards in all four core subjects. Among them are Colorado and Delaware, whose efforts have been widely commended. But the AFT also gave high marks to a number of states--like Alabama and Mississippi--that typically appear at or near the bottom of national student-achievement rankings.
Indeed, Southern states fare relatively well in the report, while many innovative states whose students achieve at higher levels--most notably Minnesota and Wisconsin--got failing grades.
Only eight states and the District of Columbia were judged to have exemplary standards in one or more core subjects. Virginia alone was judged to have exemplary standards in all four subjects.
The AFT recommends that state standards documents provide 60 percent to 80 percent of the academic curriculum, with the rest to be decided by districts, schools, and teachers. From the AFT's perspective, state standards that are broad and vague will lead to differing interpretations, and students will continue to be exposed to inequitable academic content.
But many education leaders at the state level say they do not want to prescribe curricula to districts. Comments from several, including Missouri Education Commissioner Robert
Bartman, were included in the back of the AFT report. "Missouri is a very strong local-control state," Bartman wrote. State officials, he said, "will not dictate curriculum content to school districts."
Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, praised the union's effort. "It is appropriate for the AFT to be rating," she said, "but the other dimension that they should certainly start paying attention to is: What is the level of curricular knowledge and level of performance reflected in those standards? You can be specific but have low expectations. You could have very specific low expectations."
Darling-Hammond suggested that the standards documents coming out of the Southern states may be appealing to the union because those states traditionally have been more prescriptive, and the AFT is seeking a high level of guidance. "What is not being captured in that dimension," Darling-Hammond said, "is the quality of the guidance."
Copies of the report are available for $10 each from the AFT Order Department, 555 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Ask for item 265.