Understanding Standards

Originally published on The Quick and the Ed.

There has been much discussion of standards in the last week, fueled by the release of two major reports.  The National Center for Education Statistics raised some interesting questions about the rigor of state standards and variation between the states.  Their report compelled Secretary Spellings to argue against national standards on the editorial pages of the Washington Post.

There is some ambiguity in the use of the word “standards” in this debate.  In terms of curriculum,  standards are a specific description of what students should know and be able to do by the end of a course or grade level.  This is what we often mean by “national standards.”  In terms of assessment, standards are the level of performance to which students are held accountable — the difficulty of the test.  This is what we mean by “high standards” (which, incidentally, is also the reason women say they won’t go out with me).  It’s the difference between what a student should learn and how well they need to learn it to pass the test. 

The distinction is subtle but important.  When i started teaching, I immediately noticed a significant gap between my state’s curriculum standards and what was expected on the state test, and I often wished they were more aligned.  There was more depth and more breadth in the curriculum standards.  Of course, even these did not account for everything I wanted to teach my students, like mental toughness or the importance of going to college. 

In policy discussions, we should be aware of the two types of standards and be clear about which we are refering to.  It is crucial that students in all states be held to high assessment standards, which is why the NCES report is troubling (though in my view mitigated by flawed methodology).  But this does not necessarily mean that all states must have equivalent curriculum standards.  In theory, states can exercise discretion in what students learn and when they learn it while also ensuring that all students benefit from a rigorous and complete curriculum.  The question is how to make sure it happens.

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