Guidance on Standards, Assessments, and Accountability
Archived Information

Content and Performance Standards


The emphasis on challenging content and student performance standards for all children provides a clear goal for the new Title I law: to enable children served by Title I to meet the challenging standards established by the State for all its children. States, districts, and schools are called on to break with past practice by replacing minimum standards for some children with challenging standards for all. Challenging content standards defining what knowledge and skills should be learned and student performance standards that set the levels of student achievement, therefore, are the centerpiece of Title I.

States must develop or adopt content standards—in at least reading/language arts and mathematics—by school year 1997-98. By that time, they also must have performance standards for at least three levels of attainment: two high-performance levels—proficient and advanced—and a partially-proficient level that can be used to determine how well children are learning the material in the State content standards. To ensure that children served by Title I are held to challenging standards, States that have developed content and performance standards that apply to all children must also use them for Title I purposes. Only in the absence of overall standards for all children will States develop or adopt standards specifically for Title I.

States may vary their approaches in developing and implementing their standards. However, it is the State’s responsibility to ensure that the standards are rigorous and hold students to high expectations.

Standards are intended to provide a focus for coherent improvement in all the components affecting teaching and learning: curriculum, instruction, professional development, school leadership, student assessment, and parent involvement. Thus, they can ensure coherence among all ESEA programs, including Title I, professional development, migrant education, Indian education, and bilingual education. They can also play a critical role in linking all these ESEA programs to the overall reform efforts in States and communities.

Statute and Regulations

A State shall develop or adopt challenging content standards and student performance standards that will be used by the State, its LEAs, and its schools to carry out Title I.

Standards must include:

  • challenging content standards in academic subjects that—
    • specify what children are expected to know and be able to do,
    • contain coherent and rigorous content, and
    • encourage the teaching of advanced skills; and

  • challenging student performance standards that—
    • are aligned with the State’s challenging content standards;
    • describe at least two levels of high performance, proficient and advanced, that determine how well children are mastering the material in the State’s content standards, and
    • describe a third level of performance, partially proficient, to provide complete information on the progress of lower-performing children toward achieving the proficient and advanced levels of performance.

A State that has developed or adopted content and student performance standards for all students under Title III of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act or under another process, or will develop or adopt such standards by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, shall use those standards, modified, if necessary, to carry out Title I.

If a State has not developed or adopted content and student performance standards for all students by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, or does not intend to develop those standards, the State shall develop content and student performance standards for elementary and secondary school children served under Title I in subject areas as determined by the State, but including at least mathematics and reading/language arts. These standards must—

  • include the same knowledge, skills, and levels of performance expected of all children,
  • meet the requirements for challenging standards in the law, and
  • be developed by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year.

If the State has not developed content or student performance standards in mathematics and reading/language arts for elementary and secondary school children served under Title I by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, the State shall then adopt a set of standards in those subjects such as the standards contained in other State plans the U.S. Secretary of Education has approved.

If and when a State develops or adopts standards for all children, the State shall use those standards for Title I purposes.

Questions and Answers

1. What are content standards?

Content standards are broad descriptions of the knowledge and skills students should acquire in the core academic subjects. The knowledge includes the important and enduring ideas, concepts, issues, and information of the subject areas. The skills include the ways of thinking, working, communicating, reasoning, and investigating that characterize each subject area. Content standards may emphasize interdisciplinary themes as well as concepts in the core academic subjects.

2. Who is to be involved in the development of a State plan that includes the State ’s standards and assessments?

A State plan must be developed with broad-based consultation throughout the planning process with LEAs, teachers, pupil services personnel, other staff, parents, and administrators, includingprincipals, and with substantial involvement of the Committee of Practitioners established under Title I. The Committee will continue to be involved in monitoring the plan’s implementation.

A State that chooses to submit a consolidated State plan, in keeping with the special emphasis that is placed on public involvement, should recall both the public involvement responsibilities under individual program statutes and section 14303(a)(7) of the ESEA. This provision requires, as one of the State’s general assurances, that "before the [consolidated plan] was submitted to the Secretary, the State has afforded a reasonable opportunity for public comment on the plan or application and has considered such comment."

As States seek widespread involvement in the development of their content and performance standards, they may want to consider the following:

  • the groups which should participate in designing, reviewing, revising and selecting the standards and the process by which these groups were selected; and
  • the breadth of public hearings and public comment at each stage of the standards development process.

4. What considerations are relevant as a State determines whether its standards are challenging?

The following questions may help a State determine whether its standards are challenging:

  • Do the standards reflect the best professional judgment of content specialists?
  • Is the State setting challenging enough standards?
  • Are they balanced, accurate and sound?
  • Do they express developmentally appropriate benchmark expectations and show progression to higher levels of critical thinking skills at each grade level?
  • Will the standards help raise expectations for all students, particularly economically disadvantaged students, and students with limited English proficiency, disabilities, or other special needs?
  • Are the standards specific enough to inform the improvement of teaching and learning across the State?
  • Do the standards provide effective academic goals and support alignment of all key elements in the education system—such as professional development, instruction, the development of materials, and student assessment?

A State may wish to include in its plan information that responds to these questions. A number of groups have already developed criteria for determining whether a set of content standards is challenging and of high quality. States are encouraged to explore such criteria in their own standards review. In developing standards, States may also want to review presentations from professional groups or academic experts, frameworks from other States, districts, or professional sources, and exemplary practices across one or more States. The following is one such example.

5. What are performance standards?

Performance standards are concrete examples and explicit definitions of what students have to know and be able to do to demonstrate that such students are proficient in the skills and knowledge framed by content standards (Section 3, Goals 2000). States and localities typically distinguish two types of interrelated standards: those that specify the (what students should know or be able to do at different points in their education), and those that specify the performance (how well they should be able to do it). Ideally, performance standards indicate the type of evidence required to demonstrate fulfillment of content standards (e.g., essay, mathematical proof, scientific experiment, project, exam) as well as the quality of performance that will be deemed acceptable... [Robert L. Linn and Joan L. Herman, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST, A Policymaker's Guide to Standards-Led Assessment, Education Commission of the States (ECS), February 1997. See also, National Education Goals Panel, Report of Goals 3 and 4 Technical Planning Group on the Review of Education Standards, Washington, DC, 1993.]

Performance standards in a State plan must describe (1) at least two levels of high performance, proficient and advanced, that determine how well children are mastering the material in the State content standards; and (2) a third level of performance, partially proficient, in order to provide more complete information about the progress of the lower-performing children toward achieving the proficient and advanced levels of performance. If a State wishes, it may describe additional levels of performance for the purpose of providing educators with more information about the progress of lower-performing children. These additional lower levels, however, maynot result in lower expectations for children served by Title I. All children are expected to achieve the proficient and advanced categories of performance.

States that have developed or are developing performance standards consistent with the above definition have done so in two ways. Some States are working to define their performance standards simultaneously with their content standards or to derive their performance standards directly from their content standards -- in preparation for developing assessment. Often, these descriptors are included in specifications for the assessments -- they define the rigor of the standard so that developers of the assessment know what to shoot for. Other States establish performance standards in conjunction with the development of a set of assessments aligned with the State’s content standards. Once the assessments have been developed and piloted, descriptors of student work that define the boundaries between performance levels are collected in conjunction with assessment items or tasks.

Both approaches to defining performance standards are based on the content standards and are integral to the development of performance assessments. Cut scores, such as the 25th percentile on a nationally norm-referenced test, are generally not considered to be performance standards because transitional assessments are not aligned with a State’s content standards.

Both approaches should involve knowledgeable teachers, curriculum experts, and community members to help guide the process and to help educators and the broader community understand the content and performance bases of new assessments. Both approaches need to maintain a focus on the high standards implicit in this effort despite the many pressures to benchmark performance expectations to current levels of student work. Below are some examples of performance standards.

6. Because a State does not submit copies of its content and student performance standards with its State plan, how may a State demonstrate that it has developed or adopted challenging academic standards that meet Title I ’s requirements?

A State need not submit its standards to the Secretary. Rather, in its State plan, the State must include evidence that demonstrates that it has developed or adopted challenging content standards and student performance standards that will be used by the State, its LEAs, and its schools to carry out Title I.

To guide a State ’s submission of evidence of challenging content and [student performance] standards, the State could select from the following "menu " of options:

  • Comments from an independent peer review panel the State has requested to review its standards.
  • A detailed description of the process by which the State developed its standards and reviewed their rigor, including input from relevant stakeholders and individuals or organizations with expertise in standards development.
  • Evidence demonstrating that student performance on a State assessment that is aligned to the State content and performance standards is generally comparable to student performance on a rigorous nationally recognized assessment such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • Evidence demonstrating that the State ’s standards are as challenging as standards promulgated at the national level (such as NCTM content standards).
  • Evidence describing the State ’s process to benchmark its standards to nationally recognized standards such as participation in the New Standards Project.
  • Adoption of the standards of another State that have been determined to be challenging.
  • Alternative evidence that demonstrates the State has challenging standards.

7. If a State will not have content or performance standards in at least mathematics and reading/languages arts by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year, what must the State do?

If your State will be unable to complete development or adoption of challenging content and performance standards in mathematics and reading/language arts before the beginning of the 1997-1998 school year, you must request a waiver of this deadline under section 14401 of the ESEA. Please note that, while the Department will entertain waivers of the standards deadline, it will not waive the fundamental requirement to have challenging standards.

8. Must a State develop or adopt content and performance standards in all subjects?

Although there are only two subject areas in which development of State content standards and student performance standards is required by Title I—mathematics and reading/language arts—the Department encourages the development of standards in other subject areas as determined by the State.

9. Do performance levels created from the use of a transitional assessment fulfill the requirement that a State shall develop or adopt challenging student performance standards that will be used by the State, its LEAs, and its schools to carry out Title I?

No. If the transitional assessments are not aligned with the content standards, then the performance levels created through the use of these assessments will not be aligned with the content standards. The statute requires that the challenging student performance standards be aligned with the State’s challenging content standards.

10. Must State content and performance standards be uniform throughout a State for Title I purposes?

No. Title I requires that each State develop or adopt challenging content and student performance standards. It does not require that a single set of content or performance standards be applied uniformly to every LEA within the State. There are a number of options that may be applied to the development of standards. The three highlighted in this document are Statewide content and performance standards, locally developed content and performance standards with State approval, and a combined State-local approach to standards development.

Statewide Content and Performance Standards

Many States will establish content and performance standards that will be applied uniformly to all schools and LEAs in the State. In those States, regardless of which LEA a student attends, he or she will be expected to meet the same content and performance standards.

Locally Developed Content and Performance Standards, with State Approval

Instead of developing or adopting uniform statewide content and performance standards, a State may require local districts to develop their own standards. States that require this must establish criteria or model standards and review locally developed standards to ensure comparability, rigor, and conformity with the State criteria or model standards. The State must also ensure that some school districts do not set less challenging standards than other districts in the State. For example, a State with large urban areas with high concentrations of poor and low-achieving children must ensure that districts serving those areas do not establish less challenging standards. Instead, because of the enormous needs in these districts, the State must be careful to ensure that the district’s standards are sufficiently high to raise students’ performance.

Combined State-Local Approach to Content and Performance Standards Development

A State may develop uniform statewide standards and require or encourage each local district to develop additional standards which meet or exceed the State standards. In this approach, local districts would be required to align their standards with the common standards developed at the State level while at the same time being allowed local flexibility to tailor their standards to their particular system and context.

In allowing or encouraging additional locally developed standards, States must ensure that such standards are challenging. States that wish to include local standards as part of their statewide system will need to facilitate the alignment and linking process.

11. If a State does not have uniform statewide standards, what may a State wish consider to ensure that locally developed standards are challenging?

The types of evidence States may consider includes the following as it prepares for a review using the menu options in Question 5--

  • procedures the State has developed to determine that locally proposed standards are challenging, including review and approval of standards set locally;
  • information that demonstrates that all students within the State are expected to achieve challenging standards, even if the standards are not identical from district to district;
  • descriptions of the process of alignment of assessment, professional development, curriculum and instructional resources with State or locally developed standards;
  • procedures that ensure that districts with high proportions of disadvantaged students set challenging standards, such as comparing local standards with model State standards;
  • establishment of model standards against which local standards may be compared; and
  • review of local standards by experts in the relevant discipline.

12. What does it mean to say that standards apply to all children?

Whether standards apply statewide or districtwide, all students within that State or district must be held to the same challenging standards. In other words,

  • All students, including economically disadvantaged students, limited-English proficient students (LEP) students and students with diverse learning needs, are expected to learn the same general high-quality content, rather than a separate curriculum for certain students, although a wide range of instructional methods and strategies could be used.
  • All students are held to the same high standards of performance, regardless of the assessment instrument used.
  • Students can and will vary in their performance levels—some students will learn more than others. However, the performance levels all students need to reach in order to "meet the standard" will be set much higher than at present.
  • Some students may require more instructional time, different methods of teaching, additional support, or adaptations in assessment, but all will be exposed to challenging material and expected to reach a high level of performance.

13. In subjects in which students will be served under Title I but for which a State does not have standards, how may the State determine that the knowledge and skills Title I students are expected to achieve are the same as those expected of other students in the State?

To ensure that the same knowledge and skills are taught to Title I students as to the rest of a State’s students, the State may want to consider the following strategies:

  • data collected in special evaluation studies—sample schools representing different levels of performance and socioeconomic status, observation, self-reports by teachers and students, analyses of assignments, course-taking patterns (at the secondary level), analysis of texts in use, and teacher logs; and
  • on-going data collection involving surveys, archival data, and regular district assessment measures.

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Last Modified: 04/02/2009