Which school do you want to support?
Educational standards describe what students should know and be able to do. They come in two flavors, as expectations for what gets taught (content) and for how well students learn (performance). When someone refers to "fourth grade math standards" they are speaking of shared expectations about what the content of education for fourth graders should accomplish. When they talk about “reading at an 8th grade level” they are referring to how well a student that age is expected to perform.
It is easy to confuse a "standard" with the curricular materials and approaches that schools, teachers, or publishers use to teach the standard. This confusion blossomed into the political realm in 2014 as school communities struggled to choose and use new books, materials, lessons and tests that matched new "Common Core" standards.
The story of performance standards probably begins in China. In the Sui Dynasty, written exams were made part of the selection process for civil service positions, introducing the idea of “merit” to the process and reducing the power of local authorities to appoint their relatives. Though the Sui dynasty proved short-lived by standards of Chinese history, the idea of setting specific expectations as part of a centrally-designed selection process stuck.
It may seem as if standards have been around forever, but the current US approach to standards is actually rather new. The exam system of Sui-dynasty China was designed to sift a large body of applicants to find exceptional candidates. The standards system that we use today is meant to clarify expectations and provide guidance for all students.
The state uses standards to guide the design of learning materials and standardized tests. Ideally, those tests help educators determine what students still need to learn to perform up to expectations. The traditional uses of testing were rather the reverse, as Nicolas Lehman describes in his book The Big Test. Historically, tests were developed as a way to quickly and efficiently sort the test-takers, for example identifying students who were “college material” or the best candidates for jobs.
The modern "standards movement" in the U.S. emerged partly as a response to the 1983 publication of "A Nation at Risk," an influential report that criticized American competitiveness and strongly advocated for higher universal expectations in U.S. education. Within a few years of its publication, content standards in many subjects were being hammered out by expert panels. The national tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were expanded to enable state-level comparisons.
In 2000, George W. Bush advocated as part of his campaign for president that every student should be tested every year, using tests that reflected each state's standards. Passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 (a re-named, expanded version of the legislation previously known as ESEA) ushered in that change and lots of others.
Prior to 2010, each state set its own standards. Some, like California, had comparatively high expectations. Other states had low standards. In a few cases, states actually lowered their standards in order to avoid looking bad in national rankings. In 2010, the Federal “Race to the Top” competition highlighted the mess and prompted a national alignment of standards. Suddenly, state standards had more in common than virtually anyone had imagined possible.
were such a bore.
Teach us more,
California joined the vast majority of states in adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts and in mathematics. In 2013, the state adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as well.
Standards have the power to change what happens in classrooms because they influence textbooks and learning materials. The state of California expects school districts to make sure that the materials they use are aligned with the standards, and to that end it recommends textbooks that districts ought to use for grades K-8. Teachers plan their lessons to ensure that students acquire the knowledge required by the standards. State tests evaluate student performance based on the standards.
Making sure teachers are covering the standards can be challenging. How can a district know that the content taught in each fourth grade math class "covers" the standards expected of fourth grade math?
One answer is to provide teachers, quite literally, with scripts. "Scripted curricula," briefly popular in the early 2000's, specify exactly what to teach on each day, and provide wording for teachers to use in explaining concepts. This approach to curriculum has both its admirers and its critics. Generally, a scripted curriculum appears to reduce the disadvantages of being assigned to an inexperienced teacher and support consistent explanations from one class to the next. But these curricula often proved dull for teachers and students, and experienced educators tended to ignore them.
For some states, adopting the common core standards significantly increased grade level expectations. This was less true in California, where the prior standards were already quite demanding.
However, this is not to say that the new standards are just like what California had before. The new standards place less emphasis on detailed lists of content for each grade level and greater emphasis on “habits of mind” that students need to develop as they interact with content. (If "habits of mind" doesn't seem like enough jargon for you, you might enjoy these: In English language arts these habits of mind are often called “capacities” and in mathematics they are referred to as "principles." You're welcome.) Another major difference is that the Common Core standards explicitly aim to prepare students to be ready for college and career by the time they leave high school. The idea was to begin with the end in mind and then map back to kindergarten.
The shift to Common Core standards will have broad effects. It’s little wonder they have attracted broad interest, including in the realm of politics. When the Obama administration made adoption of "internationally benchmarked" standards a requirement for states to participate in the Race to the Top competition, the movement to Common Core standards shifted almost overnight from impossible to inevitable. The competition offered a chance of funding to states that participated. The competition created an external reason for states to update their standards in a way that made them comparable to one another. Most states promptly began the shift to new standards.
The political fireworks over the swift adoption and implementation of the Common Core make for good headlines, but they add little understanding of the real content of the changes.
Ahem. The best way to understand the new standards is to, well, sit down and read them. Basic background information is available at the Common Core State Standards Initiative website. A good place to start for California-specific information is the Common Core page on the California Department of Education website. The National PTA has created both a brief and a more comprehensive set of guides that explain to parents what the standards say. Spanish versions of the guides and many other resources are also available.
To help explain grade level expectations under Common Core, GreatSchools has prepared a useful set of videos about "milestones" for grades K-5.
Standards are the foundation upon which the content of education is built, from texts to tests. Building a new foundation under an existing structure is disruptive work, and a sound foundation isn't the only thing that makes a house comfortable or beautiful. Some new texts, lesson plans and tests advertised as "aligned" with the Common Core are going to be wonderful. Some will be awful. None of them will replace the vital role of the teachers who use them.
Are these expectations sufficient? In the next lesson, "Academic Rigor: Is School Challenging Enough?" we will explore the debate about whether expectations can be too high.
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