A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Improving America's School: A Newsletter on Issues in School Reform - Spring 1996

The State Content and Student Performance Standards Setting Process

The standards setting process typically includes the development of the following three components:

The experiences of state and local educators--including superintendents, curriculum directors, school administrators, and teachers--show that standards setting can accomplish three important goals. First, committing to high academic standards makes the unequivocal statement that all students are expected to excel academically. Second, standards setting engages parents and community members in a broad-based debate about what students should know and be able to do and strengthens the connections between state and local education reforms. Third, standards setting involves classroom teachers, parents and other members of the school community in the educational improvement process.

Participants in standards setting--whether classroom teachers, parents, or business leaders--report that the process inspires a sense of community ownership and an immediate classroom response: North Dakota teacher, Linda Corner, observed, "The standards make clear what we should be achieving at the end of each grade." A citizen member of Massachusetts' standards setting team, Clifton Reed, reports: "You have more teachers attuned to where you are trying to go and how it will cut across the various disciplines;" and Cynthia Bianco, Niagara City Public Schools assistant to the superintendent, explains, "We asked the community to tell us what they expected us to do for them. As a result of that process, everything we do is tied into a standard, or we shouldn't be doing it."

Chronology of Recent Standards Setting Activities

In March 1994, Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which provides funding to schools, communities, and states to raise their educational standards. In October 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Improving America's Schools Act (IASA), renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and providing the authority for a $10 billion appropriation in aid to states and localities. The new federal legislation is unique in its movement away from setting program-specific requirements and toward promoting the use of federal funds to support locally designed approaches to improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools. It helps bring all the pieces together in a systemic way to upgrade schools.

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Improving America's Schools Acts of 1994 are adding momentum to state and local efforts to raise standards; however, in some states, standards have been central to education reform since the early 1980s. In 1987, California incorporated its standards in the state's comprehensive "curriculum frameworks," first in English/language arts and mathematics, and later in other disciplines. Maryland, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, among others, also developed content standards in the late 1980s. In 1989 other states began setting state standards in earnest, soon after the governors' "education summit" that laid the groundwork for the National Education Goals. Overall, between 1989 and 1992, 45 states began to articulate challenging standards and revise curricula in the core academic content areas.

It took several years for states to clarify workable strategies for standards setting, but a number of converging events added to the effort. The National Council on Education Standards and Testing assessed progress on standards setting in Raising Standards for American Education (1992). The Council argued that schools lacked coherence and that insufficiently ambitious standards weakened education across the country. Thus, following the model of states like California, Maryland, and South Carolina, the federal government assisted the process, funding standards setting by discipline-based professional associations and supplementing the standards-setting efforts of states.

In 1991, the National Science Foundation's (NSF) State Systemic Initiatives seeded math and science reforms in 25 states (including Puerto Rico). The U. S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement granted funds to 23 states in 1993 to promote standards development in English/language arts, history, geography, civics, foreign language, mathematics, science, and the arts. At about that time, the Department of Education's Dwight D. Eisenhower National Program for Mathematics and Science Education also funded the development of curriculum frameworks in math, science, or both, in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Private foundations, such as MacArthur, Pew, and Carnegie, helped advance the process by convening standards setting groups in collaborative organizations, such as the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

How Do States Set Standards?

Setting standards involves defining the "essential" aspects of each subject and, in coordination with broad-based community groups, writing a rigorous core of priority standards that speak directly to the concerns of teachers and parents. Once standards are drafted, groups involving educators and citizens statewide develop plans to disseminate, review, and implement them. Many states develop a monitoring strategy that tracks progress toward statewide adoption. Finally, to keep the purpose of standards in focus, states inform the public about the process and the definitions they use in developing standards.

Standards developers take especially seriously their responsibility to children who have been poorly served by schools; they include on their committees teachers and community leaders from disadvantaged, remote, or multilingual communities. They also turn to experts for guidance on the qualities of good standards. Organizations that states and districts consult include the American Federation of Teachers (1995), the Council on Basic Education (1995), CCSSO (Blank & Pechman, 1995), and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (Curry, 1992). These groups, among others, argue that standards should be:

Redefining standards and attaining consensus are more easily envisioned than accomplished, and states sometimes are confronted by several thorny issues along the way. A first step requires agreeing on what a content standard is. Content standards take on different meanings across contexts and content areas. Thus, in mathematics, following NCTM's Curriculum and Evaluation Standards, many states use common high-level conceptual statements coupled with well-defined content specifications. But in English or language arts, where no discipline-based standards are yet available, states have made different decisions about the broad themes of content that should be taught in reading, writing, listening, speaking, and English literature.

Some Questions Writing Teams Ask about Their Standards

  • Is it clear from the standard what students are expected to know and do in the core academic content areas?

  • Does the community--including teachers, parents, and citizens--claim the standards as its own?

  • Will teachers view the standards as a tool to help focus teaching and learning?

  • Can students understand what will be expected of the at key points in their school careers?

  • Do parents know how they can help their children and their schools?

  • Is it clear to teachers where the resources are that will help them teach to the standards?

  • How will student progress toward achieving the standards be measured?

Standards setters also need to resolve varied ideas about performance standards and determine which performance proficiencies are appropriate in core subjects at different developmental levels. Performance standards gauge the degree to which students meet content standards; therefore, a number of elements must be considered in setting the standard: what qualifies as evidence that a standard is met; the means of assessing performance; and distinctions among proficiency levels. Grappling with these issues has put performance standards in the middle of the process, between obtaining agreement on content and determining the kinds of assessments that will best test students' achievement of the state's content standards.

Colorado Has Drawn A Distinction Between What Standards Do And Don't Do:

Colorado's standards DO:
  • Reflect agreement among community members about the knowledge and skills students must have to graduate

  • Hold each student to high performance standards in math, science, reading, writing, geography, history, and other subjects

  • Build on best past and current practices

  • Provide realistic expectations and appropriate learning opportunities for all students

Colorado's standards DO Not:

  • Promote arbitrary classes, isolated curriculum, or "seat time" spent in school

  • Include fuzzy, unfocused minimum expectations or a watered-down curriculum

  • Throw away graduation requirements and traditional grades, classes, or report cards

  • Set unrealistic standards that prevent all students from succeeding

Colorado Department of Education. Higher Expectations, Better Results

Standards Build on Consensus

Consensus is the key to successful standards setting. Clarence Bina, North Dakota's director of special projects, reports that his state convened a cross section of stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, and representatives from several Native American reservations and religious communities. Working with the assistance of a consultant from the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, the team struggled with such issues as: What should a standard look like? How demanding should the performance benchmarks be? The process reinforced state and local ownership and commitment. The writing team agreed that the document needed to provide direction to teachers and clarity for parents. Once the team completed the writing process, teachers from eight pilot schools began to lead inservice training sessions on the standards in schools throughout the state. A North Dakota teacher trainer says that these standards greatly improve on "the multiple goals that overwhelmed teachers before . . . we now understand exactly what we need to teach the kids."

Across states, writing teams of professional educators and citizens debate and refine numerous drafts before they finalize their standards. In Massachusetts, 25-person teams in seven core content areas are writing curriculum frameworks that include content standards. The teams involve teachers, school and district administrators, college faculty, parents, business representatives, representatives from museums and cultural organizations, and high school students. In North Dakota, the first draft of the standards was written by teachers and university professionals. Colorado's draft standards were the product of discipline-based committees working under the direction of a state-appointed standards council.

The review and pilot process, which typically lasts from two to four years, makes standards setting a shared, highly public, and statewide event. Writing partnerships, community hearings, and school study groups are central to implementation in many states.

Example Of North Dakota's English/Language Arts Content Standards For Grade 8

Students gather and organize information effectively through reading, writing, listening, and speaking. They achieve the benchmarks if they:

  • Accurately summarize story elements, e.g., summarizing, main character, supporting characters, mood, etc.

  • Use content clues to determine meaning, e.g., denotation, connotation, standard/nonstandard English, etc.

  • Use a variety of organizational strategies, e.g., cause/effect patterns, time lines, outline forms, paraphrasing, note-taking, etc.

  • Use appropriate reference tools, e.g., dictionaries, CD ROMs, graphic aids, laser discs, Reader's Guide, Dewey Decimal System

  • Use an appropriate reading and listening vocabulary, including word clusters, multiple meanings, etc.

Standards-Setting Requirements for Title I of the New ESEA

Part A of Title I of the new ESEA is designed to improve the teaching and learning of children in high-poverty schools, enabling them to meet their state's challenging academic content and performance standards. States that receive Title I funds must submit a plan developed in consultation with local education agencies, teachers, administrators, staff, and parents. State plans must demonstrate that the state has developed or adopted challenging content and performance standards for all students--including students with limited English proficiency, disabilities, or who are economically disadvantaged--or describe the state's strategy and a schedule for developing or adopting such standards by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year. States that have already developed or are developing content and student performance standards under Title III of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, or another process, must use those standards (modified if necessary, to conform to Title I requirements) for Title I.

If a state will not have developed or adopted content and student performance standards for all children by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, or if it does not intend to develop them, it must develop content and performance standards for children participating in Title I, Part A, programs. The state determines the subject areas, which must include at least mathematics and reading/language arts. For subjects in which students will be served under Part A but for which a state has no standards, the state plan must describe strategies for ensuring that all participating students are taught the same knowledge and skills and held to the same expectations as are all children. By the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, the states must either develop these Title I standards or adopt a set of standards, such as those developed by another state. States, however, are not required to submit their standards to the Secretary of Education.

Challenging content standards must:

  • Specify what children are expected to know and be able to do
  • Contain coherent and rigorous content
  • Encourage the teaching of advanced skills

Challenging performance standards must:

  • Be aligned with the state's content standards
  • Describe two levels of high performance, proficient and advanced, that determine children's mastery of material in the state content standards
  • Describe a third level of performance, partially proficient, to provide information about the progress of lower-performing children toward achieving proficient and advanced performance levels

Title I schools and districts must demonstrate the extent to which they are making adequate yearly progress toward enabling their students to meet the state's performance standards. State plans define what constitutes "adequate yearly progress" for schools and districts. Progress is linked primarily to student performance on state-defined assessments. Schools and districts that fail to make adequate progress will be identified for improvement and will receive technical assistance.

Standards Are Context Specific

State standards are specific to state-defined needs and contexts. Michigan will include economics in its social studies standards, and Montana has standards for "aesthetic literacy" that encompass English and the fine arts. Alaska, Oregon, Vermont, and Wisconsin are developing multidisciplinary standards. Through support from the U.S. Department of Education's Eisenhower Program in Mathematics and Science, many of the states developing curriculum frameworks include cross-disciplinary math and science standards. One state and one district--New York and the District of Columbia--incorporate technology and mathematics with science standards; Massachusetts includes technology with science standards.

Often states start setting standards in English/language arts or mathematics, or both, and, by the year 2000, most intend to complete standards setting in various combinations of academic fields, such as history, geography, civics, economics, foreign languages, and the arts. In the past few years standards setting in math or science was especially active because of groundwork laid by the NCTM, AAAS, NSTA, and NAS, and because of federal assistance from NSF and the U.S. Department of Education.

A CCSSO study found that math and science state curriculum frameworks and standards written since 1990 have several common features. They include commitments to teaching and learning based on problem solving; developing mathematical power among all students by upgrading the curriculum content with statistics, algebra, geometry, and measurement; and using calculators and computers to apply mathematics to real-world problems. The curriculum frameworks identify the audiences for the document and the purposes of the standards. Often, the content standards incorporated in the frameworks are consistent with the standards distributed by the discipline-based professional organizations in these fields, but the scope and structure of each state and local document varies. A quarter of the standards written since 1990 include pedagogical guidance; just over half also make policy recommendations. Virtually all of the standards espouse a strong equity agenda.

Standards setting also occurs under different kinds of state mandates. Colorado, Michigan, and Massachusetts, for example, are implementing legislated accountability requirements. In North Carolina, the Governor's office is spearheading standards setting. The English/language arts standards in North Dakota and Montana were developed by the curriculum divisions of the states' education departments.

Sometimes, in lieu of mandates, states embed model standards within guides they write for districts to use in developing their local standards and curriculum frameworks. Colorado and Massachusetts are two examples of this approach. The commitment to local control in education in the United States means that standards are locally determined, although some states have the legislative authority to mandate statewide standards.

Example Of Massachusetts' Mathematics Content Standards
For Grades 5-8

The mathematics curriculum should include the study of number systems and number theory so that students can:

  • Understand and appreciate the need for numbers beyond the whole numbers;

  • Develop and use order relations for whole numbers, fractions, decimals, integers, and rational numbers;

  • Extend their understanding of whole number operations to fractions, decimals, integers, and rational numbers

  • Understand how the basic arithmetic operations are related to one another;

  • Develop and apply number theory concepts (e.g., primes, factors, and multiples) in real-world and mathematical problem situations.

Standards Promote a Culture of Professionalism

State leaders anticipate that raising education standards will promote a dialogue among educators, parents, and the public that redefines what should be taught and how to teach it; however, a solid professional development initiative is central to achieving that vision.

Massachusetts and North Dakota, while taking different approaches, have a similar objective: "Not just to produce thought-provoking documents, but to do it in such a way that teachers have a part in the development and a stake in its implementation," according to Massachusetts' Dan French.

Both of these states ask teachers to disseminate the standards among their colleagues. In Massachusetts, trained study-group conveners are helping district-based groups select a theme from the standards and design and test new instructional materials. Through books, videotapes, and computer-based data banks, the state will disseminate the groups' products to demonstrate ways to engage students in higher levels of thinking and more active learning. North Dakota turned to its teachers to pilot staff development activities that use the standards to design performance-based tasks and projects, along with rubrics for assessing student progress. Schools applied to serve as pilot programs; in two-week planning meetings with educators across the state, teacher leaders, and their principals hammered out a training program to teach colleagues how to apply the standards to performance assessments and benchmark-development.

Teachers are the key to achieving challenging standards, and the experiences of those teachers involved in the early stages of this process show the significant impact that new standards can have. Standards authors report that even the drafting process has an immediate effect. The North Dakota Language Arts Committee introduced its standards with this comment about its members' own experiences: "Thus far, the impact of the project is best evidenced by the increased level of knowledge and understanding of standards for the English Language Arts Committee itself."

Standards Setters Confront Challenges

State standards setting has gathered momentum, but the process still faces challenges. Time and expertise are always limited, creating potential stumbling blocks. Early standards-setting states found it takes three to five years for standards setting to move from state legislation to dissemination. At the end of that period, standards exist but assessments, implementation activities, and professional development are just being planned.

Teachers report that standards send clear signals. But turning standards to practice is another significant challenge. The experiences with the California curriculum frameworks and the NCTM Curriculum and Evaluation Standards teach that the implementation timeline is lengthy. Although these standards have been widely distributed, researchers are debating how quickly classroom practice is changing to reflect their recommendations (Guthrie, 1991).

Finally, sustained professional involvement is crucial to the success of standards. Once teachers are engaged and asking fundamental questions about what to teach and how to teach it--and are encouraged to do so by their schools--they likely will make this reform a lasting one. In addition, standards writers insist that improved student performance is the goal--not standards alone. Standards setting is a critical first step from which school improvement can flow.

Massachusetts invested more than $2 million to support 1,100 school-based study groups that will encourage teachers to talk about the whole notion of whether they can have one common set of high expectations for students. The state's director of instructional and curriculum services, Dan French, explains: "We tell people that [standards are] a good place to start. Having that conversation is key.... In our mind, a good school is where there is dialogue and inquiry. The study group sanctions the conversation; it says that the state agency thinks it is important to bring teachers together and begin to talk about their craft."


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