Nearly every state has its own approach to standards-based reform, but they share three key components:

  • High standards for what all students should know and do.
  • Tests aligned to the standards that gauge student progress.
  • Accountability for schools based on the results.

While the particulars vary from state to state, the goal is the same: to make sure our schools are providing all students with the education they need to lead meaningful, productive lives in the new century. Proponents of standards-based reform view the emphasis on all students as key to equal education opportunity as well as to education improvement in general.

Each state, with the exception of Iowa, has developed a set of standards that defines this education for its students. Standards represent end points in a student’s career, whether at the end of each grade or the end of elementary, middle, or high school.

States administer tests as a check on the academic program in order to assure the public that schools are meeting their obligation to teach the state standards. State tests are standardized in order to provide a valid, external measure that can be compared across schools and districts.

Schools, and sometimes students, are held accountable for student performance on the state tests. For this reason, state tests are said to be “high stakes.” Prior to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), high stakes was a relative term because some states defined higher stakes for schools and districts than others. Consequences ranged from public reporting—with its attendant possibility for public praise or censure—to financial rewards for good performance, to a complete state takeover for persistent bad performance.

NCLB upped the ante by extending federal accountability measures to all schools and districts that accept Title I dollars, which are intended to supplement the educational program for students from low-income families. These measures affected nearly 90 percent of all U.S. school districts in 2005. NCLB requires Title I schools and districts to show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for each subgroup of students based on their race, ethnicity, family income, or special educational needs, with the goal that 100 percent of students will score at the proficient level on the state test by the year 2014. Failure to meet AYP for one or more subgroups triggers increasing levels of sanctions ending with a complete school takeover and restructuring after five consecutive years of shortfalls.

NCLB says nothing about what tests should mean for individual students. But, in the belief that students will not be motivated to perform their best on tests that have no personal consequences, several states have taken the view that tests should count for students too. At this writing, 25 states require high school students to pass a test in order to earn a diploma, an idea which is gaining more traction across the country each year.

Short history of standards

Many people assume that the education system has always had standards for student learning, but the idea is really a new one.

Up until the 1990s, what got taught in individual classrooms typically evolved from a mix of textbook selections, course requirements, local preferences, teachers’ lessons, and standardized tests. Higher education imposed admissions requirements that in turn defined the college preparatory sequence of high school courses. Likewise, occupational standards framed vocational programs. Local school boards made (as they continue to make) decisions about what curriculum to teach and how much time students should spend learning various subjects. But there were no explicit, public standards for what all students should know and be able to do as a result of their time in public school.

Not only was the public in the dark about what students were learning, they didn’t have good information about how well students were learning it. The standardized tests most students took were norm-referenced, which score test-takers along a bell-shaped curve. These tests show how students perform in relation to their peers, but very little about how well they know the subject matter (see A Guide to Standardized Testing).

Teachers’ grades were also problematic in that they could vary a lot from school to school and even from classroom to classroom. Research has shown, for example, that students earning “As” in high-poverty schools would be given a “C-” or “D” in low-poverty schools. Whatever “standards” were informing teaching, they were far more likely to be lower for poor students than for their more affluent peers.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush brought the nation’s governors together to develop a bipartisan, national strategy for improving American education. The result of this historic meeting was the establishment of national education goals that included targets for all students—not just some—to “demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter.” This begged the obvious question: What is challenging subject matter? Even more baffling: How do you define this content for a country with a long tradition of local control?

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) provided a model. The math teachers association had recently undertaken an exhaustive process of articulating the essential knowledge and skills all students needed to be considered mathematically literate. The process was iterative and involved professional mathematicians and math teachers. The resulting standards were voluntary—no call went out to enforce them—but NCTM hoped that they would help guide the writing of textbooks and state and local curriculums.

Inspired by this model, the U.S. Department of Education under President Clinton funded similar initiatives for other core subjects with the distinction that the drafting would be public and represent all stakeholders in public education. The standards would represent the best thinking from across the country. Importantly, however, they would be voluntary, and if used, would allow plenty of room for local refinement and adaptation.

Over the 1990s, states drafted and adopted their own sets of standards; most of them followed an exhaustive, public process to assure public support. Since then, state standards have served as the central focus for education improvement up through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The future of standards-based reform

Standards-based reform enjoys widespread support as a school improvement strategy among policymakers, educators, and the general public (see, for example, Public Agenda's coverage of education issues.) This is not to say, however, that it is free of controversy. Some well-known leaders in education are critical of standards claiming they undermine teachers’ professionalism and ability to individualize instruction for different learners (for example, Deborah Meier on standards and the future of public education in the Boston Review.)

Much of the criticism, however, is not about the standards themselves but rather their implementation, particularly the provisions for testing and accountability. Many observers express concern that an over-reliance on standardized tests will skew classroom instruction toward content and skills that can be most easily tested at the expense of critical thinking and creativity. Some critics further maintain that there is a limit to how much schools can compensate for distressed family circumstances, charging that the current high-stakes environment is unrealistic and unfair to schools (for example, Richard Rothstein on the achievement gap).

Still, many others support high-stakes testing, arguing that it casts a needed spotlight on the underachievement of many American students, in particular low-income and minority youth whose low achievement had previously been hidden behind school and district averages. Proponents point to the gains these students are showing on standards-based tests as proof that the strategy is working to close achievement gaps (see Grissmer and Flanagan). They maintain that anything less than a system that enforces high standards for all is unfair to students (see Education Trust).

Even though districts are bound to state and NCLB requirements, they still have some latitude in determining how to best prepare their students. This will include passing the state test, of course, because the results tell the community whether their young people are able to compete with peers across the state. But in the end, students’ success will not be defined by the test alone but by other attributes the community and the outside world value as well. 

This guide was prepared by Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education.

Posted: March 23, 2006
©2006 Center for Public Education.