What are standards?

Standards spell out what students are expected to learn in each grade and each subject. Each state Department of Education creates academic 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 academic 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 academic 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.