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Setting Standards in Our Schools: What Can We Expect?

President Bill Clinton has called for national education standards and voluntary achievement testing. Read about the past, present, and future search for effective educational standards.

"We finally have accountability in the schools for academic performance. We are now measuring our schools based on students actually learning the basics."

With those words, Virginia Governor George Allen recently celebrated the passage of new public school accreditation standards requiring students to pass state-mandated subject-area tests in order to graduate from high school. By the year 2007, a school could lose its accreditation if 70 percent of its students do not pass tough new math, English, science, and history tests.

But students in Virginia aren't alone:

  • In Maryland, the school board has unanimously approved the development of a new series of tests students will be required to pass in order to earn a high school diploma.
  • In New Jersey, Governor Christine Whitman recently announced that standardized tests for eighth- and eleventh-graders have been upgraded to reflect revised core curriculum standards.
  • And last month in California, the State Board of Education adopted new academic standards emphasizing basic skills.

All across the country, states are mandating more rigorous academic standards and instituting strict assessment procedures to ensure that students meet those standards. And with the stress on accountability, many teachers are demanding a say in setting standards and developing tests. Teachers are making this a negotiating point in contract discussions. They say if they're going to be held publicly accountable for what students do and do not learn they ought to have a say in determining what that is.

Critics complain that new standards often unfairly penalize schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged or ESL students. Some states, such as Maryland, consider indicators other than state-mandated test scores -- for example, attendance and dropout rates -- when making accreditation decisions.

And, critics add, if schools are to lose accreditation, it is essential that they be helped to improve. Financial support and assistance in developing reorganization plans -- including help from teachers and principals from successful schools -- are a must.

Matt Gandal, assistant director for education issues at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), points to the state of Kentucky as a good role model. In Kentucky, Gandal told the Washington Post, the focus is on a school's "improvement over time rather than setting one target that all schools must meet."

So what has prompted the national demand for stricter accountability, and why are so many states establishing new academic performance standards?


"My number one priority for the next four years is to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world."

In his February 4, 1997, State of the Union Address, President Clinton issued a 10-point Call to Action for American Education. Included in the proposal is a plan for the establishment of national education standards and the development of national achievement tests.

The President's call for educational reform, though controversial in some of its specifics, is not a new mandate, but rather the continuation of a movement that has its roots in the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk. That report stated that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity..." and it spurred a national effort to stem that tide, including

As early as the mid-1980s, many states -- notably California, Maryland, and South Carolina -- had begun to develop more rigorous educational standards; and, by 1992, 45 states had developed content standards and revised curriculum in core academic areas to address those standards.


"Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being." (Goethe)

Effective educational standards define a common core of learning for all students and require students to reach common levels of performance and achievement. Most education experts agree that standards must include the following components:

  • content standards, which identify required knowledge and skills.
  • performance standards, which define required levels of mastery: How good is good?
  • proficiency standards, which assign value to work based on students' developmental levels.

In a report prepared for the National Educational Summit held in March of 1996, fourteen educational leaders were questioned about their views on standards. The experts agreed that effective educational standards should

  • improve the performance of all students.
  • initially concentrate on the traditional disciplines -- reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, geography, and literature.
  • be developed at the state level.
  • be implemented and overseen by each state to ensure improved student performance.
  • be related to reforms in assessment, teacher education, and the allocation of resources.

In addition, experts say, standards should be clear, realistic, and challenging, requiring specific knowledge as well as the ability to apply and communicate that knowledge through demonstrated thinking and problem-solving skills. As one of the participants, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley commented, "Without knowing where you're going, you certainly cannot get there."


"If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed." (Chinese proverb)

Forty-eight states now have, or are developing, common standards for core subject areas and some of our nation's brightest students have already made important gains. Combined math and verbal SAT scores are at their highest levels since 1974, and the number of students passing AP (Advanced Placement) exams has tripled since 1982. But too many of our students still do not meet minimum levels of proficiency in core subject areas:

  • Forty percent of 8-year-olds cannot read on their own.
  • On tests developed by the National Education Goals Panel, three of four students failed to meet suggested reading and writing standards and four of five failed to meet math standards.
  • Quality Counts, a special report by Education Week online, revealed that, on National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, only 28% of fourth-graders scored at proficiency levels in reading and only 21% of eighth-graders reached proficiency in math.
  • Although students at our country's most competitive schools outperform students from many other large countries in international education competitions, minority students attending our nation's poorest schools score much lower than their peers in every subject area at every grade level -- and the gap appears to be widening.

Why haven't higher standards helped?

According to Making Standards Matter 1997, an American Federation of Teachers report on the effectiveness of academic standards, although the commitment to standards-based reform is strong, that commitment is not always reflected in real gains or real educational change. Too many states, the report says, fail to attach assessments, consequences, and interventions to their standards.

The AFT report concludes that schools must

  • supplement their standards with clear teacher guidance.
  • be sure their standards and assessments are aligned.
  • establish plans for phasing in incentives and consequences.
  • provide extra help to students who do not meet the standards.

In other words, standards alone are not enough.


"The spirited horse, which will try to win the race of its own accord, will run even faster if encouraged." (Ovid)

President Clinton and Congress recently reached tentative agreement on the development of voluntary national tests to assess student achievement and monitor the success of individual schools. That action has sparked debate among educators about who should devise educational assessments.

Critics of the plan believe that what is taught in schools should be a local decision and they say that national testing will put those decisions in the hands of the federal government. They also fear that teachers and school systems will be penalized if they fail to meet national academic test standards.

Others, however, believe that a national assessment program will result in greater public awareness of educational issues, a greater feeling of responsibility and cooperation among teachers, parents, and students, and result in the allocation of necessary resources to poorer school districts.

Related Resources

  • Raising the Standard by Denis Doyle and Susan Pimentel. This guidebook and CD, developed by the Coalition for Goals 2000, features five school districts and their efforts to reform their schools. Funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the book and CD are intended as a guide to help other communities develop more rigorous education standards. For information, see the Coalition's Web site or call (202)835-2000.

Related Sites

Article by Linda Starr
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