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Why are standards important?

Standards are guideposts for schools. Teachers, parents and students use them as a tool to focus on what students are expected to learn.

By GreatSchools Staff

What are standards?

Standards spell out what students are expected to learn in each grade and each subject. Each state Department of Education creates standards for schools within the state. These standards become the basis for the way teachers are trained, what they teach and what is on state standardized tests that students take. For example, a first-grade math standard may state that by the end of first grade students are expected to count by 2s, 5s and 10s to 100.

Where do standards come from?

The standards "movement" grew out of frustration in the late 1990s with a fragmented public school system with many levels of bureaucracy — local, state, national — in which expectations for students varied widely and too few poor and minority students were achieving. The thinking among researchers was that if clear and challenging content standards were set, then teachers would teach to those standards and tests would measure if students were meeting the goals.

The results have been mixed. Student achievement has gotten better, particularly in states such as Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and Texas that were early adopters. But progress has not been as quick or gone as far as many would have hoped. Although poor and minority students have made gains, there is still a big difference — commonly called "the achievement gap" — between what these students have achieved when compared to their more affluent and white peers.

How are state standards different from national ones?

National standards are created by a variety of national organizations. Unlike state standards, which all public schools in a particular state are required to use, national standards are voluntary and students are not held accountable to them. Some states use them as guidelines for creating their own state standards or simply adopt them as their state standards.

Why are standards important?

Without standards, districts and schools don't have goals to shoot for. By matching what is taught in the classroom to the standards in each subject area, students (and their parents and teachers) will know what teachers should be teaching, what students should be learning and what they will be tested on.

What's the downside of having standards?

Critics argue that having rigid standards and tests discourages schools from being innovative and inspiring creativity in their students. Because the emphasis is on basic skills such as reading and math, subjects that are not tested, such as art and history, get less emphasis in the classroom.

The pros and cons of national standards

In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate in education circles about the value of having a national set of standards that all schools throughout the country would use. Here are the arguments in a nutshell:

The pros:

  • National standards would raise the level of expectations for all. If all schools across the country had the same standards, all students would be expected to achieve at the same level, no matter what state they live in. If students in Mississippi were required to know the same things as students in New York, for example, they would be prepared to attend universities throughout the country.
  • National standards would assure that all American students meet international levels of achievement. We know that American students fall behind in math and science compared to their peers in other countries. With national standards, it would be clear what students need to know to compete internationally.
  • National standards would make it easier for students to adjust to a new school when they move from one state to another. In an increasingly mobile population, it would be easier for students who currently face differing standards and different tests in each state.

The cons:

  • Education has traditionally been a right of the states. The United States has a long history of "local control" of schools that would be hard to change. The federal government or a federal agency should not dictate education in each state.
  • National standards would create a one-size-fits-all framework. The needs within each state are different. National standards would not take into account the cultural and geographical diversity of our country.
  • National standards would discourage innovation and creativity in the classroom. Too much similarity could lead to tightly prescribed curriculum in every classroom.

What's the connection between standards and the No Child Left Behind Law?

The drive to create state standards and tests was pushed in part by the passage of the No Child Left Behind federal law in 2002. The law requires each state to set standards for curriculum in reading, math and science. Students must be tested annually in reading, math and science in grades 3 through 8, and at least once in grades 10 through 12. All groups of students, including economically disadvantaged and special needs students, must show evidence of academic progress, otherwise the school gets penalized and parents have the right to choose another school or receive free tutoring.

Critics of the law say it did not go far enough because it allowed each state to set its own standards. This created a system where some states have tougher standards than others. States can make tests easier so that more students can meet proficiency standards. Critics argue that this is exactly what has happened in some cases.

Supporters of the law say that it has caused schools to pay significant attention to the lowest achieving students and to raising the bar for all students. Test scores, for the most part, are improving and students are learning.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

11/14/2011:
"Article very innovative and well-thought. "
05/12/2009:
"Can you tell me what a kindrgardner should know before he can pass to the first grade !!?? thank you ,jan"
01/20/2009:
"I live in Tennessee, my children attend school 180 days. There are almost two months of school after tcaps are taken. Parents and teachers feel that this is wasted time, and the test should be closer to May instead of late March early April window. In order to have more instructional time to prepare for tcaps. Can the our state test (tcaps) be moved . "
09/2/2008:
"I feel the standards are set too high. Not all students are test takers. Then to find out they can't walk with their class if they are not Proficient when all along they pass the subject and sometimes be on honor roll. Then they are told they have to take a 2 week summer course or stay after school for 7 weeks. What a way to bring someones self esteem down! Go 13 years of school to look forward to the day you walk with your class to get your diploma and then to be told, Oh your not Proficient! The stress level is too high for these kids today for what is expected!"
06/2/2008:
"None of this focuse on individual child needs!! My child has failed the Math portion of the TAKS 6 times and will not graduate soley because of it. This has crippled any hopes she has for the future in terms of getting a decent job! Too much emphasis is being placed on managing the schools and none on helping the child - all she has heard from the teachers every time she failed is 'sorry to hear you didn't pass' - no plans were put in place to focus on her to make sure she passed the next time. Nobody called me to involve me in any sort of remedial plan - thanks lawmakers - you are really not helping these kids at all! You've certainly left MY child behind - she has little or no future now without her diploma that she's worked so hard on for 12 wasted years! Another very angry parent!"
02/11/2008:
"Those exceptional student should have an different programming for them as soon as there is a sign that shows this student is an exceptional student because to standardized them is to hold them back to reaching to there highest potential. The standard program is good for the students who is struggling and those who needs some motivation so that they would have something to work toward. Just a thought"
10/25/2007:
"my daughter needs i.e.p. now they are going to raise the standards again i heard as-of 10-23-07 where there mainstreaming all kids for science & socail studies & maybe other subjects. uping the standards are hard for some children & they will be left behind!"
10/17/2007:
"I wish my private school had had some standardized testing. It wasn't until I attended public high school that I understood how low/non existant the standards are in private school. "
10/12/2007:
"Standards are desperately needed for private schools, esp. in SF, where conspicious consumption rules, but the education, in private schools is sadly inferior. The public schools do a great job, have very high educational standards. But the private school children here tend to be very ignorant and bigoted (but great shoppers!)"
08/10/2007:
"I feel that the standards and curriculum recomendations are important in keeping the students and teachers on a well established path. However, it does not mean that just because you may be a minority or socio-economicly deprived in some way that the others children in the class should be neglected. This happened to my daughter, a blond-haired, green-eyed little girl, from a nice neighborhood. She was assigned to a school in a neighborhood, just after we moved, that contained a very high percentage of minority students. Out of a class of 28, she was one of 7 that did not speak Spanish, and there were 6 that could not speak English at all when they started in August. The teacher spoke no Spanish, and was not allowed to attempt to translate for the children. As a result, my daughter's reading problems were overlooked and disregarded. When I approached the school for help, they told me to send her to private tutoring; that because she did not qualify for the school tutor! ing program, I would have to pay for it myself. The program was only for minority students in the lowest income brackets. Now, I realize that disadvantaged students need help, but I don't see why the rest of our children should be deprived at the same time. We have since moved out of the school district, and now have my son and daughter both enrolled in an elementary school with gifted and accelerated programs for all students. I had to appeal to the placement staff to advance my daughter to 2nd grade, as the other school had simply given up and retained her. Her math, science and social studies skills were all 2nd and 3rd grade level, but her reading scores were low. 'No Child Left Behind' wasn't supposed to mean 'hold them back if they lag so they can fit into the next group'. It was meant to encourage educators to recognize ANY student who may be at a disadvantage, no matter what color their skin is, or how much their parents earn."
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