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Educational Standards 101

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Updated on Mar 6, 2009

You’ve probably heard it a million times: high standards are great for kids.  Whether the subject is reading, math or pushups, young learners benefit when they feel both challenged and supported.

But if you’ve got kids in school, you’re probably also wondering: How do I know what “high standards” look like?   What can I reasonably expect?  

This was easier back when your child was an infant, and you could cruise fat shelves of manuals on every baby stage.   But now your kid is moving through elementary school.  What’s going on?  

Of course, you should talk to your teacher and read school materials.   But if you remain confused—like many parents--you can also use a powerful tool now available online in all fifty states: Academic Standards.  Developed over the last decade and required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), these lists lay out exactly what students are supposed to know and be able to do by the end of every K-12 grade.  Districts must follow them; teachers must teach them; and you can use them too.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re wondering if your second grader should do some catch-up in math this summer.  In addition to talking with your child’s teacher, go to your state’s Department of Education website.   You can see exactly what your child is expected to know and be able to do at this point.   With Standards in hand you can work with your child’s teacher to figure out if he’s on track for next year.

Parents, do beware: not all state education websites are created equal.  In most states, you can just search on the word “standards,” but if that doesn’t work, plan to try words like “curriculum guidelines,” “grade level expectations,” or, if you’re in Texas, “Essential Knowledge and Skills.”   As U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Rebecca Neale explains, when it comes to standards, NCLB “is not a federal one-size-fits-all-approach.  States have always had the authority to develop their own academic standards and NCLB does not change that.”  So expect some variations, but count on this: every state has developed academic standards.  If you look on your state’s website—the list will be there somewhere!

Of course, even with statewide regulations, every district, school, and classroom has its own special character—and that’s good news.   Individual teachers still bring personal creativity into the classroom and will work with their students’ strengths and weaknesses.  Most private schools are not required to align their curricula to state lists, so what’s taught in each grade can very greatly.  But for parents with kids in public school, standards really help shed light on what the big takeaways are for each grade level.

So the next time you find yourself poring over a report card or puzzling over how to help your child, remember: whatever you think of NCLB and the standards it dictates, they’re an increasingly important part of education in America.  They are also free and helpful…and only a website away.

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