Parents of school-aged children have been inundated in recent years with discussions of standards and end-of-grade testing. While standards themselves are not new, much of the current emphasis on testing and standards-based education has grown out of the 2002 enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), federal legislation designed to ensure that all children perform at grade level in reading and mathematics by 2014.
NCLB sets general guidelines for literacy and mathematical proficiency. National professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommend standards for K–12 mastery of subject matter; individual states use these guidelines to develop more specific standards and methods to assess how effectively they are met.
At their most basic level, standards state what children should know or be able to perform as a result of their education. The term standards, however, applies to three sets of criteria:
- Content standards describe the knowledge and skills all children should acquire through instruction in particular academic areas. Sometimes called academic standards, content standards make the general goals of education concrete by detailing specific knowledge or tasks that students should master at a particular grade level or by graduation.
- Curriculum standards set goals for how programs of study should be organized and taught. State boards of education publish curriculum standards, sometimes called a curriculum framework, which outline when and in what order (scope and sequence) a core academic subject area should be taught. Written by educational and content experts, a framework is designed to connect national professional content standards with local curriculum and instruction.
- Performance standards clarify how well students must perform to demonstrate mastery of content standards. Also called benchmarks, performance standards define the desired level of performance in a given subject area at a specific grade level. They explain, for example, how well students must read in a specific grade to demonstrate grade-level proficiency. Performance standards also apply to institutions and systems. For example, an institutional performance standard might stipulate that 80 percent of the students should be able to write a well-organized descriptive paragraph by the end of the third grade.
Proponents of standards-based education argue that standards establish clear expectations for achievement and a basis for teacher and student accountability. They also provide specific criteria for developing curriculum, measuring achievement, and improving teacher training. Without clearly established standards, some argue, textbook publishers and testing services may have undue influence in shaping curriculum.
Standards alone, however, do not improve student achievement. If too detailed, they become tedious; if too general or abstract, they do not provide enough guidance for effective curriculum development and assessment. Overemphasizing standards can limit curriculum to a few core subjects, often at the expense of subjects such as art, music, and physical education.
NCLB ties standards to high-stakes testing, holding all schools and all students accountable for performing at grade level in reading and mathematics. The bill specifically aims at enhancing the achievement of low-income and disadvantaged students. Schools must meet yearly progress goals toward proficiency in all federally funded student categories or face penalties. Students in schools that fall short of these goals for two consecutive years must be offered the opportunity to transfer to other schools.
By the 2005–6 school year all students in grades 3–8 must be tested annually in reading and mathematics; a science component, requiring testing in elementary, middle, and high school, will be added by 2007–8. Grade-level proficiency, however, may differ from state to state, since state and local districts set their own content and performance standards and methods for assessing progress.
Parents should be aware that standards set basic, sometimes minimal, levels of competency that apply to all students; they do not address higher-level academics and critical skills appropriate for many students, including gifted children.
—Sarah Boone, MA
Sarah Boone holds a master’s degree in teaching and certification in gifted education. She teaches at Meredith College.
- No Child Left Behind
- Education World, U.S. Education Standards
- “Electronic Portfolios in Teacher Education,” by Carla Hagen Piper
- Colorado Glossary to Standards-Based Education
- “Overcoming the Side Effects of Standards-Based Teaching,” by David Gilman and Ruth Gilman,Education Digest, December 2003, 14-17
- North Carolina Public Schools: No Child Left Behind in North Carolina
- U.S. Department of Education