Standards-Based Reform

— Center for Public Education
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

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.

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