« The Fallout from Testing | Main | Standards and a Peculiarly 'American' Problem »

The Value of Standards


Dear Deb,

I don’t understand why you are so certain that any state or national standards are beyond consensus, or that they will be entirely arbitrary. You also think that it would be politically and technically impossible to agree on what students should know.

I don’t agree.

I don’t think it is at all impossible, politically or technically, to arrive at standards and assessments that avoid partisanship and ideology. Consider that reading, mathematics, and science are already assessed internationally. There is already a consensus among educators representing dozens of nations about what knowledge and skills should be assessed at different grade levels.

Mathematics and science should be the easiest fields to reach a consensus, because—while there are certainly many controversies in both fields—it is also quite possible to identify important knowledge and skills that can fairly be tested. I just looked at the NAEP test. A typical fourth-grade question: “The Ben Franklin Bridge was 75 years old in 2001. In what year was the bridge 50 years old?” The student is given a choice of 1951, 1976, 1984, or 1986. There is a single correct answer. The student who answers this question correctly knows that she must deduct 25 from 2001 to get the answer of 1976.

It is equally possible to set standards for history and assess them, so long as those who are setting the standards draw the line between discussing controversies—an essential in teaching and learning history—and imposing a particular point of view about history. One would expect high school students who have studied world history, for example, to be able to describe the essential ingredients of totalitarianism, especially with reference to government denial of basic rights and freedoms. One would expect students who have studied American history, for example, to be able to write a brief essay on causes of the Civil War or to analyze the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Setting standards is not easy work; I don’t mean to suggest that it is. But I think that the value of standards is, first, an assurance that students are acquiring important skills and knowledge, regardless of where they live, and second, an assurance that students who move from one district to another will not skip, repeat, or miss important studies. Given the enormous mobility in our society, it seems to me to make sense to have some broad curriculum guidelines—not a straitjacket for teachers, but a syllabus that provides coherence and stability, e.g., agreement in a state about when students will study state history, U.S. history, and world history, with a brief description of the major ideas and themes of each year of study. Absent such an agreement, students may move and find themselves taking state history—or some other course—again and again. I don't expect to persuade you but I think it might be useful to get our disagreements out into the open (again!).




While I am probably closer to you than to Deborah in terms of coherence of curricula, I am NOT as sanguine about the politics as you are, and I want to reserve considerable curriculum space for what is not specified in standards.

Maybe it's because I'm in Florida and one of our Board of Education members has just come out against including evolution in the new science standards, or maybe because of the smears directed against the Nash et al. history standards 15 years ago, but I suspect deliberative processes around curriculum will always invite politics. Whether the controversies happen or not is a good question (a great dissertation topic, I think!), but I don't believe there will ever be a process to boil down curriculum standards to some consensus in some neutral fashion.

PISA is able to craft international assessments without (noticeable) political backlash because there are no concrete consequences tied to the assessments AND because they don't shape curriculum in any one country. And even so, such assessments would only cover a portion of what we might think interesting and important in math and science. Are you suggesting that the PISA (or ANY) test specifications be the sum of curriculum?

I think it's also important to keep in mind that we are NOT the only industrialized country with federalized curriculum policymaking. I am a bit suspicious of claims that there is a strong relationship between the level of curriculum centralization and student outcomes. I know that's not the specific point you were making here, but it's a fairly common but undocumented statement.

I think a compromise is possible--a set of national standards in the areas where we can reach concensus--which will be tested nationally--and slots left for each state to add state-specific standards where they want them--which will not be tested nationally (things like state history, local geography, and so on). So if national concensus around evolution is impossible (how depressing), leave it out and don't test it. Let the states add science standards addressing or questioning it.

Deborah's point that standards can and should serve as suggestions rather than as "agreed to" documents/requirements (where there are clear losers in the question of "whose knowledge?") makes sense to me.

A national set of standards reached by consensus is both impossible and undesirable.

It is impossible since thoughtful people will not agree on which knowledge is of "most worth," including in math, science and reading. Some people do believe, as Andrew pointed out, that scientific knowledge of great worth is an understanding of the theory of evolution. It's hard to find a biologist who doesn't believe this, for example. But a consensus will not be reached on this. This is an obvious example, but there are many more: sex/health education (quite high on my priority list, for example, not others), particular books which have been banned or shunned, the value of algebra, or any strand of math compared to any other strand, etc.

Many of these questions are fundamentally tied, not only to political or religious beliefs, but to people's theories of learning and what makes most "developmental" sense. There is not consensus on this stuff. And will not be, since, for one thing, psychology/cognitive science is such a divided field. Making a national set of standards will amount to one group, or an alliance, forcing their opinions on others.

It doesn't have to be that way. A national set of standards is also undesirable for a variety of reasons. Among them: the standards will be tied to tests with high stakes, which will, as Deborah and many others have shown, deskill teachers, dumb down curriculum, prioritize that which is tested, take democratic processes away from communities, and provide a reductionist view of children.

All assessments have limitations, which is why a variety of assessments is important. Teachers and schools have access to many more forms of assessment and can know students far better than test makers. They can also best build trust with the communities they serve. We should be talking about how to support schools so they can do this better, as well as how to better involve parents and communities in discussions of what knowledge is of "most worth," rather than stripping that decision-making power from communities.


What you describe as the possible results of national standards is what is already happening in our schools.

The problem with our current tests is that they only test for basic math and reading skills. All of the content knowledge and difficult to test subjects have been deleted from our schools.

Without any standards, we fall back to the least common denominator of school; a little bit of reading, writing and arithmetic. While these subjects are foundational to a quality education, our children need to learn more.

As much as Americans tout the benefits of local control, what control do our schools/school boards really have? The tests are developed by state officials and the textbooks are developed by publishers, usually in states far away. “Local control” has not given our students a high quality education.

So while national standards would be challenging to develop, they offer some hope of including the ephemeral aspects of education that define quality.

Erin Johnson

Your Ben Franklin Bridge example sheds light on the differences between you and Deb. Your sample test question drives the type of math teaching that you want to take place in fourth grade and that national standards would enforce. Simple multiple choice questions about useless information (like memorizing the outline shape of states on the map) is exactly what turns many kids off to math. What's tested will be what's taught. There are so many better ways to teach addition and subtraction and to let kids demonstrate their knowledge and skills.
Your way has only the value of being easily and quickly measured. Why is that necessary? Are there schools that won't teach addition and subtraction unless they are forced to adhere to national standard # 274? Or unless a multiple-choice subtraction problem will appear on a high-stakes standardized test? If there are, standards won't help them.

Wow! Talk about a hot topic. This one is white hot.

The US needs to develop national standards accompanied by national assessments with corresponding levels of achievement (proficiency). It’s simply an issue of equity. We need only examine the questionable practice(s) of states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Nebraska, Idaho, Virginia, etc., to reach this conclusion. These states have developed anemic tests and embarrassing levels of proficiency when compared to NAEP results, commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card.” No Child Left Behind will never be able to realize its full potential as long as entire states are left behind due to the duplicitous efforts of their respective officials.

The obvious benefit of federalizing standards, tests, and levels of proficiency: kids from Alaska to Florida will finally have access to the same rich body of knowledge we would want for our own children. These standards and levels of proficiency could be developed by a committee of representatives from the fifty state DOEs as opposed to Washington. The assessments could be developed (by bid) by an impartial professional testing company (Is that an oxymoron?). Such a committee could use existing documents such as: E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation, NAEP standards, International Baccalaureate standards, PISA standards, even standards from states that have matched up well with the NAEP’s such as Massachusetts, as their guide(s). Once the standards and assessments are in place Washington could: (1) report the results annually, and (2) appropriately fund the legislation.

In addition to establishing a national standardized test, in order to realize greater reform within the public education system we must:

1. Raise compensation levels for high-quality teachers, especially in the areas of science, math and Special Education;
2. Provide better information on school performance to parents;
3. Eliminate district boundaries between schools allowing parents to choose the right school for their children, regardless of where they live;
4. Allow greater flexibility for schools to hire and fire teachers;
5. Make school funding more transparent by attaching education dollars to the student instead of the school district.

For more information, visit wwww.paths2choice.com.

Incidental thoughts:

The transfer/mobility/equity question is worth more discussion--re federal vs local power to formulate curriculum. (e.g. I'm always impressed at how easily well-educated kids handle transitions, and how individually we need to address those who don't, rather than repeating more of the same.)
Some years ago I was part of a discussion re science standards--and I was impressed with how each and every science sub-discipline thought their "basics" were vital to the whole. But put them all together and our high school years would be devoted to nothing but science--coverage-wise at least.
The problem with a lot of well- intended math work lately is the degree to which it rests on reading skill as much if not more than math. We used to argue that math was it's own language! But in order to make it "practical"--a "problem solving skill" (ugh) it has led us to ignore dkids who really think "numerically" if they cah't draw it or say it And yet....
Why Brown vs the Board should be on our essential history is a fascinating case in point. As an example of how federal law served to help equitable ends or how federal law was undermined in face of persistent racism? If taught properly--not in a JD Hirsch'ian manner--it's a topic for a month or more study at the right time in young people's development. But to study it in an "unbiased" manner we'd have to agree not to cover everything else we each think is critical for every citizen of America--or the world?--to know. If not, we turn equity into our right to be equally ignorant! It would be a huge fight and I want to reserve the big fights for stuff that might be be a leap forward.

One can always hope. As the New year approaches I've got my hope for '08 list ready.


Re: Debbie Smith's post. Why is it that the choice/voucher people see that approach as the panacvea for everything. This is a perfect example of "garbage can" theory--solutions looking for problems to which to attach themselves

Diane: There is a fairly obvious flaw in your argument. You argue BOTH that standards can be arrived at by political consensus AND that national standards would make it possible to test math and history "objectively." Putting aside your rather weak example of possible interpretations by examined students of history (as distinct from the recovery of discrete facts), political consensus presupposes processes of negotiation and compromise that are incompatible with
"objectivity" in examinations. The aformentioned case of evolution is to the point. One citizen's science is another's "theory," assuming the truth of the statement that no theory is scientific unless "proven." As if Q.E.D. were the test of scientific verification. Deliberative democracy does not guarantee the prevailing of rational standards of argument, and the pluralist model of politics on which your idea of consensus is based is bankrupt. The political marketplace of ideas, should it ever be found to exist, will not result, pace J.S. Mill, in the triumph of truth. It is unlikely that any pluralist consensus can be reached in the midst of the current polarized atmosphere of this country. In any case, any consensus that might be reached would not lead to objective measures of knowledge.

Tom, your alphabet soup response was tough to follow but I think you setup a strawman. You objected to math and history standards but then went on to pick apart history and science.

Can we at least agree on national math standards?

PISA is able to craft international assessments without (noticeable) political backlash because there are no concrete consequences tied to the assessments AND because they don't shape curriculum in any one country.

Sherman Dorn makes an interesting point here. The downsides of national standards are closely tied to the high stakes consequences tied to them.

Opting for only a few key standards will tend to narrow the curriculum in a high-stakes environment. But trying to put "everything" into the standards is probably politically impossible, and would leave no room for individuality and creativity.

I'm okay with national standards -- but nationally mandated consequences tied to them are a disaster.

The effective, engaged local control that you see in many districts with well educated parent populations produces some of the best schools in the country (and probably some of the best in the world). They succeed in official national assessments, they succeed in the "unofficial" national assessments given by ETS, and they succeed in giving their students a rich curriculum as well.

I don't think any single set of standards and any single set of nation consequences can reproduce that.

Dianne Ravitch cites her experience in California as a example of how it is possible to reach consensus in setting standards for an entire state. She tells us that “we” --the State appointed committee she served on-- wrangled, discussed, debated and eventually formulated kindergarten through 12th grade standards for teaching history, geography, economics, civics, and government. The standards she notes were reviewed by over 1000 teachers, and public hearings were held. A mark of their success, she tells us, is that 20 years later those standards are still accepted and in use.

There are aspects of this story that she surely knows about that do not fit this glowing account. What followed in the wake of this effort to standardize the social studies and history curriculum by the then recently elected Superintendent of Instruction, Bill Honig, was a rancorous racially charged culture war within several districts across the State. Most notably was the 1991 grassroots rebellion in the Oakland School District. It was, arguably, the most intense, prolonged, and divisive.

On the surface the controversy was over whether the District should adopt the newly written Houghton-Mifflin K-8 social studies textbook series authored by Gary Nash professor of History at UCLA and co-director of The National Center for History in the Schools, who with Dianne Ravitch had played a leading role in drafting the standards on which the series was based This series was and remains the only one approved by the State as aligned to the curriculum framework or ‘standards’. After nine months of acrimonious debates, open meetings, intense organizing efforts, telephone trees, picketing and public demonstrations, the School Board rejected the Houghton-Mifflin books overriding the recommendations of the Superintendent, curriculum coordinator, and a district-wide committee of teachers. In the final vote, all four African American school board members were opposed while the votes of the remaining three members (two Asian-Americans and one white) representing the more affluent areas of the city were divided. Honig dismissed the opposition as leftists who rejected democratic principles. However, the opposition clearly was not as Honig charged a group of “separatists, tribalists and disgruntled leftists” (his words) but a temporarily assembled but nevertheless politically and intellectually sophisticated, well organized, racially mixed, multicultural coalition composed of mostly mainstream educational, business and religious leaders, parents, and teachers.

Clearly the consensus reached by the appointed committee Ravitch served on did not and does not reflect the views of very large numbers of people across the State. Ravitch’s proud claim that the standards remain in place after twenty years must also be taken with a grain of salt. One of the main reasons the content outlines (she calls standards) haven’t changed is that that social studies is mostly ignored K-8 because the emphasis is on jacking up scores on standardized tests that are based primarily on reading, language, and math.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments