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

Standards: What Are They?

Since the late 1980s, raising standards in the major curriculum subjects has gained momentum in states and districts across the country. States have begun to use academic standards to make clear what students should learn and what teachers should teach; local standards help teachers and principals make decisions about developing their instructional programs. Together, state and local standards hold all parts of the education system accountable for results. "We need standards not only to emphasize the academic purpose of schooling, but to provide school boards, superintendents, and principals with an anchor they can use to resist shifting currents," writes Hayes Mizell of the Edna McConnell Clark Institute (Mizell, 1995, p. 9).

Setting standards has gradually generated agreement about the meaning of two key concepts--academic content standards and performance standards. The following definitions, illustrated below with examples from Delaware, are consistent with those suggested by the National Education Goals Panel (1993) and enacted into law by the Goals 2000: Educate America Act:

Academic content standards describe what every student should know and be able to do in the core academic content areas (e.g., mathematics, science, geography). Content standards should apply equally to students of all races and ethnicities, from all linguistic and cultural backgrounds, both with and without special learning needs.

Performance standards answer the question, "How good is good enough?" They define how students demonstrate their proficiency in the skills and knowledge framed by states' content standards.

An Example of One of DELAWARE's Content and Performance Standards in Reading

The content standard in reading requires students to: construct, examine, and extend the meaning of literacy informative, and technical texts through listening, reading, and viewing. For example, to demonstrate their knowledge of this standard, fifth graders must read a full-length passage from a text and answer questions requiring both brief and detailed responses.

Based on how students' answers demonstrate their understanding of the passage, the performance standard indicates they "meet or exceed" the standard if their answer:

  • Accurately summarizes the story or non-fiction sequence

  • Identifies and discusses the characteristics (where appropriate) of the type of literature

  • Identifies and explains technical elements of the language and how it was used in the story, giving supporting ideas to show a complete understanding of the selection

  • Chooses facts or details relevant to the questions posed

  • Develops a justifiable and complete personal reaction to the selection, relating ideas in the story to personal experiences and to other reading, and evaluating the selection

Academic content standards are meant to apply to all children. In some states, however, although the standards apply to all students, the strategies for achieving them may differ. For example, New York State has established two ninth grade earth science courses: a two semester course and a three semester course. The course expectations are the same, students take the same Regents exam, and they meet the same high standard, only the length of time to learn the material differs. In other states, like Kentucky, some percentage of students who have severe disabilities are often excluded from meeting the state's standards of performance (See box below on applying standards to students with disabilities).

Standards development is supported by state legislatures, local communities, private foundations, and the federal government. States and communities establish their own standards without direction from outside sources, but they often adapt their standards to those set by teachers and professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the National Science Teachers' Association (NSTA), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), or New Standards, a collaborative of 19 states, 6 urban districts, and the Learning Research and Development Center of Pittsburgh and the National Center on Education and the Economy. In 1989, NCTM was the first professional organization to issue its discipline's standards, Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, and other discipline-based organizations have been developing their standards since 1992.

Applying State Standards to Students with Disabilities

Although standards are meant to apply to all children, the claim often rings hollow when applied to students with disabilities. As authors Shriner, Ysseldyke, and Thurlow assert in their article, "Standards for All Students," excluding students with disabilities from standards activities "perpetuates the myth of inherent differences between general and special education and continues the division among programs". One solution offered by the researchers is to develop one set of standards and expect widely varying student performance relative to them. Since student performance relative to the standards will always vary--regardless of whether students with disabilities are included--progress toward the standards should be based on some relative baseline measure, even the student's own personal baseline. "The expected range of performance is monitored for different students or student groups. Improvement over time toward set standards, but interpreted through initial performance or developmental level, presents an opportunity to include all students in efforts to adopt standards (p.13-14)."

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[Table of Contents] [The State Content and Student Performance Standards Setting Process]