Standards: The Policy Environment. ERIC Digest.
by Hadderman, Margaret
The phrase "higher standards" has become a rallying cry for avid school
reformers and politicians alike. A broad coalition of constituencies have
embraced standards-based reform as a means of improving public schools'
accountability, preparing a globally competitive work force, and decreasing
the achievement gap among various racial ethnic groups (Orfield and Wald
Equally vocal groups are arguing that the tough standards movement is
flunking too many students and detracting from classroom learning.
This Digest offers a snapshot of the standards movement: its origins,
its successes at the district and state levels, the backlash against the
movement, and possible policy directions.
WHAT ARE THE ORIGINS AND STATUS OF NATIONAL STANDARDS?
Efforts to establish national standards and tests grew out of several
key developments, such as adaptation of President Bush's and the nation's
governors' six national education goals (1989), establishment of the National
Council on Education Standards and Testing (1991), and Congress's enactment
of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994) (Wraga 1999). Although the
Clinton Administration has been trying to develop "voluntary" national
tests since 1997, most experts agree that the national-standards debate
is over (Doyle 999).
Action on standards continues at the state level, where standards are
"quietly going national," thanks to interstate comparisons on the Achieve,
Inc. website (Doyle). Wraga believes states "have acceded to national policy"
by accepting federal funding to align state curriculum frameworks with
existing standardized test content or with "state-developed criterion-referenced
Scott Thompson (1999) points out that the movement is not monolithic
and that districts are developing their own highly individualized performance
standards and allowing students adequate time to master them. Critics like
Orfield and Wald say the standards movement has been "reduced to a single
policy-high-stakes testing" linking one set of standardized test scores
to promotion, high-school graduation, and even educator salaries and tenure
According to Achieve, Inc. (2000), an advocacy group comprised of state
governors and corporate CEOs, 38 states that participated in the October
1999 Education Summit have renewed their commitment to the standards agenda.
The group has vowed to host national forums to tackle persistent challenges:
"improving educator quality, helping all students reach high standards,
and strengthening accountability."
Every state except Iowa has adopted K-12 content standards; 26 are developing
or already employing high-school exit exams; and "19 publicly identify
failing schools" (Nina and Sol Hurwitz 2000). Four states (California,
Florida, Georgia, and Ohio) are launching initiatives to compensate teachers
for choosing certain academic specialties or teaching at disadvantaged
schools, and 13 states have new programs to reward highly effective schools
WHAT DEFINES STANDARDS AND WHICH ONES MATTER?
There is considerable agreement on standards for standards. Proponents
say standards "should be grounded in core academic disciplines and should
cover what students should know... and be able to do" (Gratz 2000). Standards
dictate ends, not means, and should not prescribe teaching methods, classroom
strategies, or lesson plans. Standards should be rigorous and world-class,
enjoy broad public support, and be aligned with appropriate and valid assessments.
Berger (2000) isolates several types of standards: overarching or district
standards; content and student-performance standards; school-delivery standards;
and system-delivery standards. Emphasis should be on high expectations
for all students; equal learning opportunities; applied understanding,
not coverage; and individual students' work, not grades or cross-school
and cross-student comparisons (Thompson, Gratz, Berger).
ARE PERFORMANCE STANDARDS BEING SUCCESSFULLY IMPLEMENTED?
States and school districts with the most successful high-stakes testing
records have maintained bipartisan political and business support, stimulated
systemwide reform, and addressed the achievement of their lowest-performing
Texas, a turnaround state whose student population is half African-American
and Hispanic, is a good example. Minority students' scores on national
math and reading assessments outranked those of most other states in 1996
and 1998; scores for all students on the Texas Assessment of Academic skills
improved for the fourth straight year. Experts agree that Texas high schools
have not improved so drastically and that minority dropout rates are increasing
(Orfield and Wald).
During the 1990s, only Colorado and Connecticut made significant progress
on consistently administered NAEP math and reading tests (Jerald 2000).
The few states making headway on these exams (Connecticut, Texas, North
Carolina, and Kentucky) are education policy pace-setters.
Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park,
Colorado, exemplifies standards-based learning, according to Director Lois
Easton. This alternative school "enrolls high-school students who have
not been successful in other academic programs and holds them to the same
high achievement expected of all students in the state's model content
Scott Thompson has visited entire districts engaged in collaborative,
systemic, standards-based change, including those in Aurora, Colorado;
New York City's Community School District 2; Edmonds, Washington; Memphis,
Tennessee; and districts belonging to the El Paso (Texas) Collaborative
for Academic Excellence.
Chicago, the first urban district to end social promotion, has succeeded
in raising the bar gradually; the district provides summer remedial programs
for students who fail the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. However, curricula
and expectations for high-schoolers are below par (Hurwitzes 2000).
New York City has experienced disappointment with student test performance,
scoring errors, and glitches in its mandatory summer programs. The state's
tough new Regents exams may have to be "scaled down" so that more students
can pass them.
IS THERE A BASIS FOR A BACKLASH?
Some parents, students, educators, and other stakeholders are alarmed
by unintended consequences of imperfectly designed and implemented standards-based
programs. Some states "are using tests in ways that directly contradict
the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences, the Department
of Education's Office of Civil Rights, and other experts," who advise that
"one-shot assessments" should never determine major decisions about a student's
academic future (Orfield and Wald).
Louisiana, the first state to use high-stakes test scores to retain
thousands of elementary and middle-school students, is ignoring that advice,
and Delaware, Ohio, and South Carolina will soon follow suit (Robelen 2000).
Civil-rights advocates claim that most high-stakes testing policies,
particularly those linking single standardized assessment scores to promotion
and graduation, discriminate against minority youth, hamstring teachers,
reduce complex learning opportunities, and punish victims, not perpetrators,
of educational inequities (Orfield and Wald).
In response to increased testing pressures, many educators are "piling
on homework, abolishing recess for young children, cheating on tests, flunking
more students, teaching to the tests, and seeking to rid themselves of
low performers," claims Gratz. Stressed-out students and teachers are an
inevitable consequence, unless principals act as buffers and parents become
activists (Kohn website).
Parents, students, and teachers in Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas
are fueling a movement to abolish standards-based programs (Gehring 2000).
U.S. Secretary of Education William Riley recently advised states to undertake
a "midcourse review" of standards progress to address opponents' concerns
WHAT ARE SOME POSSIBLE DIRECTIONS FOR POLICY AND PRACTICE?
In July 2000, at the American Federation of Teachers' biennial conference
in Philadelphia, Riley echoed AFT president Sandra Feldman's concerns that
policymakers have raised standards too quickly for both students and teachers
and that states are "rushing to put assessments into place" (Bradley).
A report from the National Dropout Center recommends that states use
their rigorous new standards "to develop interventions that provide teachers
with the skills and knowledge required to teach to the higher standards
and [provide] students with additional opportunities" to attain them (Duttweiler
and McEvoy 1999). The center advocates that interventions "be in place
for a sufficient time before accountability measures are enforced" and
that schools increase their "holding power" by creating a highly motivational,
Feldman claims that secondary teachers need considerable assistance
in learning how to address struggling students' skill deficits. She proposes
that "older students be guaranteed after-school and summer school programs"
and a transitional year to learn basic skills (from specially trained teachers)
required for graduation (Bradley).
States pushing for higher standards must provide massive funding for
the remedial, tutoring, and professional-development programs needed to
enhance students' success, says Gratz. As of early 1999, only 11 states
offered such funding (Gratz).
More research is needed on the merits of experimental standards-based
programs like Eagle Rock's. Lessons might be learned from Iowa and from
public and private schools whose students perform well in the absence of
state-imposed standards (Thompson).
Drawing on pioneering districts' initial successes, the Hurwitzes advise
educators to make learning (not testing) the goal, provide special assistance
for disadvantaged students, set realistic failure rates, invest in wide-ranging
reforms, make retention a last resort, capitalize on publicity, and concentrate
on urban high schools.
Standards have great reform potential if educators "design them appropriately,
implement them fairly, provide help rather than punishment, and recognize
improvement for students from their various starting-places" (Gratz).
Achieve, Inc. "Achieve to Post Summit Responses on Web Site, Plans National
Forums on Toughest Challenges." www.achieve.org
Berger, Jeff. "Does Top-Down, Standards-Based Reform Work? A Review
of the Status of Statewide Standards-Based Reform." NASSP Bulletin 84,
612 (January 2000): 57-65. EJ 537 117.
Bradley, Ann. "Union Heads Issue Standards Warnings." Education Week
on the Web 19, 42 (July 12, 2000): 1,20-21.
Doyle, Denis P. "De Facto National Standards." Education Week on the
Web (July 14, 1999): 4 pages.
Duttweiler, Patricia Cloud; and McEvoy, Undine. Do We Have the Cart
Before the Horse? (Report #1). Clemson, SC: National Dropout Center, Clemson
University, Spring 1999. 16 pages.
Easton, Lois E. "If Standards Are Absolute.." Education Week on the
Web (April 12, 2000): 5 pages.
Gehring, John. "Students Boycott Tests in Mass. to Protest Emphasis
on Exams." Education Week on the Web (May 27, 2000): 3 pages.
Gratz, Donald B. "High Standards for Whom?" Phi Delta Kappan 81, 9 (May
2000): 681-87. EA 537 202.
Hurwitz, Nina, and Sol Hurwitz. "Do High-Stakes Assessments Improve
Learning? American School Board Journal (January 2000): 20-25.
Jerald, Craig D. "The State of the States." Education Week on the Web
(January 13, 2000): 4 pages.
Orfield, Gary; Wald, Johanna. "Testing, Testing." The Nation 270, 22
(June 5, 2000): 38-40.
Robelen, Erik E. "La. Set to Retain 4th, 8th Graders Based on State
Exams." Education Week on the Web (June 3, 2000): 4 pages.
Thompson, Scott. "Confessions of a 'Standardisto'." Education Week on
the Web (October 6, 1999): 5 pages.
Wraga, William G. "The Educational and Political Implications of Curriculum
Alignment and Standards-Based Reform." Journal of Curriculum and Supervision
15, 1 (Fall 1999): 4-25. EJ 594 857.