Setting high standards for performance is a first step. Almost all states now have content standards in place and are developing challenging student performance standards aligned with state assessments. School districts such as Corpus Christi, Texas, have developed their own high academic standards. Their "Real World Academic Standards" are even more challenging than Texas' state standards and explain what students should and are expected to know in every grade from pre-kindergarten through high school graduation.
Districts can take lessons and use information from organizations such as New Standards, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Science Foundation that have supported the development of high standards for achievement in core subject areas. The State Education Improvement Partnership, a collaboration among state-based organizations including the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States, the National Governors' Association, and others, offers technical assistance to states to leverage school improvement. Among the services offered, the organization has developed a standards review and benchmarking service. A team of experts analyzes state standards and makes recommendations to states about how standards can be strengthened.
The creation of high standards alone is not enough; districts and schools must have the means to assess school and student performance against standards, hold schools accountable for results, and implement policies to assist schools that do not meet standards. To achieve these objectives, states and districts are employing a continuum of interventions--from providing extra resources and technical assistance, to instituting sanctions and reorganizing, restructuring, or closing schools that fail to improve.
States and districts also are using their standards to hold students more accountable for performance. In an effort to end "social promotion" practices that allow students to pass from grade to grade without having mastered the required skills, a number of states require districts and schools to use state standards and assessments to determine if students can be promoted at key grades. Districts such as Houston and Chicago have developed explicit policies to end social promotion practices. In Chicago, students who perform below minimum standards at key transition grades (3, 6, 8, and 9) must participate in a seven-week summer bridge program and pass a test before moving on to the next grade. In 1997, about 41,000 students were required to attend the summer bridge program, and of those who took the test again at the end of the summer, almost half passed. Ninth graders attending the program showed an average one-and-half-year gain in their reading and math scores. 
To lay a firm foundation for school success, a state system of school support must be comprehensive and linked to school improvement plans and other federal programs. The state is uniquely positioned to ...set challenging standards; hold schools and districts accountable; ensure that technical assistance is delivered; and identify the federal, state and local financial resources to get the job done.
--Council of Chief State School Officers
These efforts are supported by federal programs that are designed to help states and districts create the means to hold schools accountable for student achievement. States can use funds from the Goals 2000: Educate America Act to begin or continue systemic, statewide education reform. Under Title I, states must establish standards and assessment systems to measure the progress of all children, as well as identify schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress.
Supported by Goals 2000 and the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, states are developing student assessments that will help determine how well all children are meeting challenging state standards. Along with assessments, states are required to develop a definition of "adequate yearly progress" for meeting the expectations of high standards in schools served by Title I.
Title I schools that achieve more than adequate yearly progress for three years are identified as "distinguished" schools and can play a mentoring role to other schools in their district or state. For example, 230 Title I schools in Texas this year received recognition for high performance for having 75 percent of students pass each section of the state assessment, a dropout rate of less than 1 percent, and an attendance rate of at least 94 percent.
Title I schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years are identified as in need of improvement. School districts must provide technical assistance to failing schools to develop a plan for improvement. If the schools continue to fail to make progress, the district must intervene. In the event that the district effort fails, the state must intervene.
One central piece in state and district accountability systems, mandated by Title I, is the establishment of procedures and standards for defining and identifying low-performing schools. For example:
As part of this emphasis on accountability, data gathered from state and district assessments are informing the public about school performance. Eighteen states including Florida, Oklahoma, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin, distribute report cards that display information about student learning in every school in the state. These report cards are helping stakeholders judge how well schools are achieving their long-range goals and how schools measure up to other schools with similar student populations. For example:
The establishment of state and local systems of accountability has been important for leveraging change in low-performing schools. In many cases, being publicly identified as low-performing has been a necessary impetus for change. But it is only the first step on the road to improvement. Turning around low-performing schools requires tough choices and a focus on strategies that will improve curriculum, teaching, and learning. In addition, real school transformation demands changes in the relationships among adults within schools and between educators and parents, school and community leaders, unions, district officials, and partners at all levels of government. School reform requires a willingness to learn, to alter old practices, and to act in new ways.
5 Chicago Public Schools, 1997. [Return to text]
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