ERIC Identifier: ED456425
Publication Date: 2001-08-00
Author: Gottlieb, Stephen S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
A Review of State Reading and Language Arts Standards. ERIC
Public demand for improvements in education has motivated a search for
guidelines as to what constitutes satisfactory public instruction and learning.
One of the latest and most significant manifestations of this has been efforts
within the individual states to define and adopt adequate reading and English
language arts standards. As the states began to adopt standards, researchers
analyzed the ways in which the various states have approached the issue.
WHY SET STATE STANDARDS FOR EDUCATION?
Why should a school
system, a particular school, or even an individual teacher not define
satisfactory instruction methods or student achievement in a manner that
recognizes local conditions? What is the benefit of a state setting forth
certain milestones that teachers and students must accomplish? Where did the
push for standards originate?
As the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's 1998 report on the subject notes, the
impetus for standards for reading and other subjects resulted from a perception
among some segments of the public that the level of scholastic achievement among
public-school students left much room for improvement (Stotsky, 1997). In
response to this, in the 1980s there was an effort on the federal level to bring
about a set of voluntary national standards for the various academic subjects.
During this same period, a joint project of the National Council of Teachers of
English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA) was also
undertaken, leading eventually to the issuance of a set of voluntary national
guidelines. Within some of the states, there was a feeling that both the federal
and association guidelines lacked a necessary level of either measurable
specificity or academic rigor (Stotsky, 1997). Consequently, although
state-level policymakers had traditionally left decisions about instructional
content and standards to local schools, many now embarked on projects to define
measurable standards by which to assess student achievement in their respective
states (Wixson & Dutro, 1998).
WHAT HAVE RESEARCHERS CONCLUDED ABOUT EXISTING STATE
There have been significant efforts to appraise the usefulness
and comparative worth of the state reading standards. Among leading research in
the area have been studies by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the
Fordham Foundation, and the Council for Basic Education (CBE). Each of those
organizations explored the state guidelines in terms of such qualities as
soundness, rigor, clarity, and specificity (Stoicheva, 1999).
A 1996 investigation of 28 sets of state reading and language arts standards
by the AFT found all of them to be unsatisfactory. The AFT report, entitled
"Making Standards Matter 1996," found 22 of the sets of guidelines to meet its
"common core" criterion, but found only one to have sufficient standards for
each grade and none to reflect adequately clustered standards (Gandal, 1996).
In 1997 the Fordham Foundation itself examined state reading standards, using
some of the same sets of state guidelines as did the AFT report, as well as some
updated ones. Fordham's research reached similarly negative conclusions, finding
that only 10 states' standards were above the statistical mean of the study. Of
the standards examined, however, none was found to identify required readings or
specific titles to clarify difficulty level or the body of knowledge to be
assessed at each level. Eighteen of the documents placed below the mean, five of
which also were identified in the AFT research as failing to achieve the common
core criterion. The Fordham researchers found two basic problems with the state
standards: the seemingly misplaced faith in the ability of young children to
understand their own culture and other cultures; and an undue emphasis on the
impermanence and variability of the English language (Stotsky, 1997).
In research for the CBE, Joftus and Berman evaluated state standards for both
mathematics and English language arts. The Council's report considered language
arts standards for 42 states. Of those, 28 states were found to have rigorous or
very rigorous standards. Many of the states' guidelines, however, were found
inadequate in that they failed to address the following areas: specific reading
requirements (how much and what types of reading are expected of students);
literature study (reading from particular periods or genres); student research
(gathering information from various sources and crediting others' ideas); and
language study (examining word origins, slang, etc.). The CBE team concluded
that for standards to succeed, they must be high, but not unreachable, specific,
but not directive, and they must be clear. Teachers must demand that students
meet the standards, and they must provide the guidance students need to achieve
that goal. In working toward that end, the researchers concluded, teachers and
students would need the support of parents, school administrators, districts,
and states (Joftus & Berman, 1998).
HOW SHOULD, AND HOW DO, STANDARDS AFFECT WAYS IN WHICH TEACHERS
As states work to develop standards for reading and language arts
instruction and learning, what needs for improvement emerge? Wixson and Dutro
examined this issue for the Center for Improvement of Early Reading Achievement
(CIERA). The researchers based their findings on an examination of 14 states'
reading standards for grades kindergarten through three. Applying content
analysis methods to the standards, Wixson and Dutro identified a set of
conclusions paired with recommendations, including: (1) the need for more
specific standards and objectives for achievement in the early grades; (2) the
necessity of conceptualizing reading in a way that makes curriculum,
instruction, assessment and reporting manageable, without oversimplifying; (3)
the desirability of striking a balance between sufficient state guidance and
local flexibility; (4) the need to provide a viable curricular path over grade
levels; and (5) the value of assuring that content is appropriate for particular
grade levels (Wixon & Dutro, 1998).
In subsequent CIERA research employing a combination of policy analyses,
psychometric measures, and literacy policy studies, Valencia and Wixson
investigated ways in which state standards and assessment affected instruction
and learning. They concluded that the relationship "between language arts policy
and practice are complex and at least partly dependent on the knowledge,
beliefs, goals and experience of the administrators and teachers who work with
these types of policy tools." The researchers suggested further that there is a
need to understand policy implementation both on the system level and in the
daily lives of teachers and students, and that without some form of professional
development, the effects of policy could be highly variable (Valencia &
WHAT CONSTITUTES EFFECTIVE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS
In a 1997 article for Reading Horizons, Heidi Anne Mesmer
examined four states' language arts standards, using the NCTE/IRA guidelines as
a point of comparison. Mesmer looked at the structure and content of the
standards for Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and New Hampshire. Mesmer contended
that the prescriptive "list" style of the some of the state standards,
particularly those of Florida and Colorado, may have the effect of restricting
teacher creativity, whereas the less specific standards such as Michigan's
appeared to lend themselves to greater flexibility. In terms of content, Mesmer
found a remarkable similarity in the four states' emphasis on such concepts and
skills as the use of varied strategies in decoding and comprehension,
construction of meaning from text, and conventions of language. Equally striking
was the common omission of the entire subject of English for speakers of other
languages (ESOL). Specific aspects of the content of the various guidelines did
suggest divergent approaches and emphases. Ultimately, Mesmer concluded that no
matter how they are written or organized, the state standards would have only a
limited impact on students (Mesmer, 1997).
STATE STANDARDS: WHERE ARE WE HEADING?
The Thomas B.
Fordham Foundation's 1998 report on state standards was not the organization's
final word on the topic. Two years later, following further revisions in state
standards, the foundation took another look at the topic. In adjusting the
standards' overall grade from a "D+" for 1998 to a "C-" for the year 2000, the
foundation identified some areas of improvement: (1) state standards were
becoming more specific and measurable; (2) content was "making a comeback" in
that states were less reluctant to dictate particular subject matter for
schools; and (3) states were less "enamored of national standards promoted by
professional organizations." In the view of the foundation report's authors,
most states still could not legitimately claim to embrace standards-based
reforms, and the states needed to improve both academic standards and
In the view of the 2000 Fordham report, there remained considerable room for
improvement. Only five of the 42 states in its study, namely Alabama,
California, Texas, and North and South Carolina, were judged as combining solid
standards with sufficient degrees of accountability. Thirty states were seen to
have inadequate (or no) accountability, while 12 had sufficient accountability,
but inferior standards.
As Mesmer suggested, the organization of the state standards reflects both
their uses and their audiences. Their style reflects certain attitudes about
teaching and learning, while content reveals balance between innovation and
consensus. Standards underscore what those who care about education view as
important and valuable, and serve as a starting point for further discussion of
good practice (Mesmer, 1997).
Finn, C. E., & Petrilli, M. J. (Eds.).
(2000). "The state of school standards 2000". Washington, DC: Thomas J. Fordham
Gandal, M. (1996). "Making Standards Matter, 1996: An Annual Fifty-State
Report on Efforts to Raise Academic Standards". Washington, DC: American
Federation of Teachers. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 410 660)
Joftus, S., & Berman, I. (1998). "Great expectations? Defining and
assessing rigor in state standards for mathematics and English language arts".
Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Services No. ED 416 080)
Mesmer, H. A. (1997). "What is the standard for state standards? An
investigation of the English language arts standards of Colorado, Florida,
Michigan, and New Hampshire". "Reading Horizons", 37 (4), 281-298.
Stoicheva, M. (1999). "Balanced reading instruction". Bloomington, IN: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Services No. ED 435 986)
Stotsky, S. (1997, July). "State English standards". (Fordham Report, Vol.1,
No.1). Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Valencia, S. W., & Wixson, K. K. (April 1, 1999). "Policy-oriented
research on literacy standards and assessment". Ann Arbor, MI: Center for the
Improvement of Early Reading Achievement. (CIERA Report No. 3-004)
Wixson, K. K. & Dutro, E. (October 1, 1998). "Standards for primary-grade
reading: An analysis of state frameworks". Ann Arbor, MI: Center for the
Improvement of Early Reading Achievement. (CIERA Report #3-001)