For almost two decades education in the United States has
been heavily influenced by what has come to be known as the
standards movement. Tied closely to assessment
and accountability, standards-based reform, unlike most other
educational movements such as open education, behavioral objectives,
and minimum competency, has taken hold in a very serious and
pervasive way. From parents to policy-makers, there is strong
support nationwide to use standards as the foundation for
improving schools. In several significant ways, Virginia has
been recognized as a leader in this standards-based movement,
and remains committed to reforming education on the basis
of what standards mean for student learning and student and
school accountability. Recent comments by Virginia School
Board member Mark Christie argue for perseverance in staying
the course by responding to critics of Virginias Standards
of Learning (SOL) (Christie, 2001).
What is Standards-Based Education?
The essence of a standard is to describe a level
of knowledge or performance that is essential for some purpose.
For example, there is a standard set by phone companies regarding
the way operators interact with customers, by state government
to issue driving licenses, a level of precision required for
assembling autos, and a set of clear guidelines for judging
gymnastics, diving, and ice skating. In a similar way, teachers
use student goals and objectives to identify what will be
taught, and as a basis for grading students work. Each
of these standards has two components: 1) a description
of what will be known or done, and 2) an indication of how
well it should be known or done. In education, these two
dimensions have been referred to as content standards and
performance standards, and they refer to quite different ideas,
each with a different set of implications.
Content standards are statements that define what students
need to know, understand, and think about. These kinds of
standards are not unlike what educators have called learning
targets, objectives, or outcomes. Essentially they comprise
a set of facts, concepts, principles, and ideas that are important,
or the knowledge and skills students should attain. When established
statewide, content standards establish a common reference
and vision for education, they help educators reach a common
understanding of what students will learn. The Virginia Standards
of Learning are primarily content standards. All the states
but one have identified content standards, often based on
extensive work done by professional organizations (the National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics was the first to designate
subject matter standards). Content standards are not concerned
with curriculum, how teaching occurs and students learn, or
the level of mastery, understanding or skill (e.g., that is
judged to be poor, fair, or excellent).
Content standards such as the Virginia SOL are organized
by grade level and subject. In doing this, an organization,
state or school division decides what knowledge and skills
should be demonstrated in each grade, setting a set of expectations.
Developing content standards is a matter of professional judgment.
The critical question is, whose professional judgment should
count? Who makes the decisions about what is most important
and what grade levels it should be taught? Should it be teachers,
legislators, business leaders or parents? Each state and
organization will have a unique set of perspectives and values,
so it is not surprising that there is a wide range in the
specificity of recommended content standards across the country.
Performance standards are judgments that indicate how well
students need to perform, a level of proficiency that must
be demonstrated to indicate that the knowledge and skills
in the content standards have been attained. By indicating
degree of attainment, performance standards are able to distinguish
different levels of mastery of accomplishment. Like content
standards, performance standards are set on the basis of professional
judgment, and different people will have different ideas about
what proficient means as demonstrated by specific
degrees of performance.
A Brief History of Standards-Based Education
- 1983: A Nation At Risk is published, concluding
that American public schools were failing and calling for
- 1989: Charlottesville education summit; 50 governors
and President Bush adopt National Education Goals for the
year 2000, including content standards.
- 1989: NCTM publishes Curriculum and Evaluation Standards
for School Mathematics
- 1990: National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) established.
- 1991: SCANS report indicates knowledge and skills need
- 1992: National Council on Educational Standards and Testing
releases report to establish guidelines for standards setting.
- 1991-1996: Most content-related professional organizations,
supported by federal dollars, establish national standards.
- 1994: Goals 2000 act established, creating the National
Education Standards and Improvement Council.
- 1995: Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools
- 1996: Second national education summit is held to support
efforts to set clear academic standards.
- 1997: President Clinton proposes national standards and
- 1998: Goals 2000: Reforming Education to Improve Student
- 1999: Third National Education Summit, reiterating support
for the standards-based movement.
- 2000: 49 states participating in Goals 2000.
- 2000: President and Secretary statement: All states
and schools will have challenging and clear standards of
achievement and accountability for all children.
- 2000: Virginia Standards of Learning published for
fine arts and foreign language.
- 2001: Virginia Standards of Learning published for
health education, physical education, driver education,
and revisions approved for history and social science.
Like most school reform initiatives, standards-based education
has its advocates and opponents. What sounds like a
simple and compelling idea identify what students should
know and be able to do and make sure schools reach these goals
becomes very complex when implemented. The complexity
arises because the movement has come to embody much more than
developing learning goals or targets and testing student achievement
(this is what schools have always done). It is these additional
values, approaches, and uses of test results that contribute
to the sometimes contentious nature of this approach to school
Why Standards-Based Education?
Standards-based education has become a pervasive political
reform movement because it combines several factors that address
what is generally understood to be failing public
schools. This has led to an emphasis on high
standards, i.e., higher or more demanding or world class
standards. This includes both more rigorous content standards
and higher performance standards. The rationale for needing
stronger standards has been essentially an economic one, based
on the belief that without a change in standards America will
be less competitive in the world. There is strong support
from the business community for standards-based reform. In
1999 the National Education Summit reviewed the standards
movement since 1996, concluding that the threat of declining
quality of education first identified in A Nation at Risk
in 1983 remains in 1999. The reports says, the American
public demonstrates ... that it clearly understands that our
continued economic vitality, social stability, and quality
of life depend on our ability to dramatically improve our
schools (1999, p. 1). The report goes on to say that
commitments to higher standards ... have clearly become
[a] central element in a nationwide campaign to improve school
performance. More recently, research by Public Agenda
indicates a widespread dissatisfaction among college professors
and employers of students basic skills (Reality Check,
A second characteristic of standards-based reform emphasizes
high performance of all students. This is primarily
an equity issue. Proponents of standards-based education
believe that low ability students have not had access to equal
education because continual low expectations for these students
has kept their performance low. Thus, it is argued that standards-based
reform will improve education for poor and minority group
students by raising expectations. The growing income gap
in America will be reduced as the education gap between low
and high ability students is lessened. Standards, it is argued,
levels the playing field, and will lead to less
sorting based largely on social class and racial backgrounds.
If students do not show attainment of the standards, then
remediation and retention may be appropriate.
A third characteristic is how standards are tied to rewards
and motivation. In contrast to much research that has emphasized
the importance of child-centered, developmentally appropriate
approaches to education, standards-based proponents believe
that competition and external rewards will motivate students
and improve achievement. This is based largely on impatience
with previous movements directed by educators,
and what is done in other countries, coupled with international
studies which suggest American students lagging. Basically,
the argument is that American schools and students need external
incentives to strive for higher levels of performance. Currently,
20 states offer financial assistance to schools whose students
perform well on standards-based tests (Quality Control, 2001).
Fourth, there is a belief that more statewide and federal
monitoring and control over local schools is needed. The
perceived need is to establish a single set of standards and
a singular comprehensive vision for all students across all
grade levels. The push for national standards in the mid-1990s
has given way to strong statewide involvement as the level
at which standards-based educational policy is created and
implemented. As a result, many of the meetings, publications,
and reports about standards-based reform have been generated
by organizations that are responsive to the needs of state
Achieve Inc. is a nonprofit, bipartisan organization that
helps states cope with the work of developing standards.
Formed in 1996 by governors and national business leaders,
Achieve provides public leadership in support of standards-based
reform. Other organizations that advocate standards-based
reform include the National
Alliance of Business, the Education
Excellence Partnership, the Fordham
Foundation , the Learning First Alliance, Business
roundtable, the Council
for Basic Education, PRESS (Parents Raising Educational
Standards in Schools, the Education
Commission of the States, and the Education
Leaders Council (Washington, DC).
Arguments Against Standards-Based Education
Critics of the standards-based movement have pointed to several
consequences that are seen as weakning public education.
Though opponents always indicate that they are not against
high standards for all students, their arguments are often
interpreted in that way. The points against the standards
movement are summarized as follows:
- Education is not as bad as many would believe. This point
is made to suggest that the assumption that public schools
are failing has been overemphasized and blown
out of proportion, largely for political reasons. If the
assumption is not true, then the remedies suggested
may not be needed, especially for all schools. Critics
- According to data from the National Assessment of
Educational Practice (NAEP), reading achievement over
the past 30 years has stayed even or slightly increased.
- SAT scores, when analyzed by high school class rank,
have stayed even or slightly increased over the past
- National standardized achievement test results show
overall improvement over the past 40 years.
- Standards-based reform is what was tried and failed in
the 1970s the decade of behavioral objectives. During
this movement educators spent extensive time
preparing behavioral objectives that specified what was
to learned (like content standards), to certain levels of
proficiency (performance standards) and what conditions
would be present (testing).
One size doesnt fit all. One of the enduring strengths
of our public schools is local control and autonomy that
allows each locality to design an education that best
meets the needs of their students. The standards movement
promotes just the opposite standardized education
for all, despite assurances from policy-makers that educational
process (how content and skills are taught) is not mandated.
The further away education mandates are from the local
communities, the less incentives there are for the community
to be involved in public education.
Standard-based education focuses the curriculum and teaching
on subject matter and skills contained in the standards,
forcing less emphasis on other kinds of outcomes that
have always been an important part of schooling, such
as responsibility, attitudes, motivation, work habits,
and values. If student achievement becomes more important,
then other goals by necessity become less important.
Some view the standards movement as a way to demonstrate
that public education is failing, which will provide political
power to incorporate vouchers and other forms of support
for private education.
It is unclear what will happen to schools that do not
meet performance standards. If the ultimate sanction
is state takeover, it is argued that the state, by its
nature, is ill equipped to run public schools.
Many believe that some content standards are too extensive,
contain far too much detail, and are not developmentally
appropriate, particularly in lower elementary grades.
It is inappropriate and unnecessary, they argue, for young
children to learn what had been taught to preteens and
Some believe that the standards movement is a major drain
on resources that could be put to better use, for example
for smaller class size, new technology, and improved facilities.
Standards-based reform, because it is inexorably related
to testing and accountability, seems to be based on a
belief that education is much like a business, and that
efficiency and bottom-line results are what
is most important. Many would argue that such a premise
Standards that are too detailed and too knowledge-oriented
encourage curriculum and teaching of many specific facts,
with less emphasis on thinking skills.
Opponents of standards-based education maintain that
it has degraded the professionalism of teaching by lessening
teacher autonomy and increasing standardization and record
keeping, resulting in many high quality teachers leaving
the profession. However there is little evidence of this
There is some evidence that teachers are restricting
student activities that are not directly related to the
standards, such as some field trips, art, music, physical
education, and other enrichments.
Some argue that the standards movement is unfair to high
poverty schools. Since student performance is somewhat
dependent on family and community support, the contention
is that these schools will be hit hardest. Negative publicity
that emphasizes high percentages of students not attaining
standards makes it difficult to attract qualified teachers
and administrators, leads to lower real estate values,
and leads to an even lower-ability student body. Who,
after all, wants their children to attend a failing
- Forty-seven states have standards in all four core academic
areas (Education Week) Forty-nine states have standards
in at least one academic area (Education Week). Three
separate evaluations of state standards gave Virginia high
marks for standards in English, math, and history in 1998(Achieve,
Inc.). Only two other states, California and Texas,
received marks as high.
- In 1998, The Fordham Foundation identified Virginias
history standards as the best among 37 states and the District
- In a 1998 nationwide poll of 1,000 parents, 73% strongly
agreed that schools should have rigorous academic standrds;
82% indicated that academic standards in schools are too
low (Council for Basic Education).
- The 1996 Third International Mathematics and Science
Study (TIMSS), found that United States students have
unacceptably low performance in middle and high school.
- Less than 2% of a nationwide sample of teachers, parents,
employers, and professors believe states should abandon
raising standards (Reality Check, 2001).
Professional judgment is the key to establishing and revising
content standards that will enhance educational practice and
student learning. Virginia has gained national accolades
for the comprehensive and detailed nature of what are judged
to be high standards. The SOLs are recognized to be clear
as well as rigorous. To continue positive implementation
and policy concerning standards, policymakers will find a
continuing need to assure standards which reflect the highest
professional and technical criteria.
Do content standards reflect the most important, enduring
knowledge, ideas, and skills of the subject matter?
The effectiveness of standards depends on how well they
represent the essential and significant features of the
subject. What is essential is what students must understand
to be able to use the concepts and principles of the subject
in meaningful ways, to be able to justify, explain, rethink,
reflect, and apply the subject.
Do content standards show how different disciplines
are related? One of the greatest challenges in developing
standards is to show, explicitly, how the subjects are
related to one another. How is mathematics related to
science? How is language arts related to social studies?
How is social studies related to science? These kinds
of connections are important because they encourage interdisciplinary
curricula and teaching, and because they provide students
with understandings and skills that go beyond the disciplines.
It is important in the long term to reinforce performance
standardsby college admissions policies and business employment
criteria (Achieve, 2001).
Are content standards updated and revised as needed?
Given the fast pace of the development of knowledge, it
is important that content standards are regularly reviewed
Do content standards represent of balance of knowledge
and skills? While the relative degree of emphasis
of knowledge and skills will vary according to the subject
and grade level, research has made it clear that knowledge
is needed for effective thinking and reasoning (skills),
and that skills are needed to establish deep understanding
and thinking skills that are essential for problem solving.
This may occur if standards are set according to exceptions
rather than realistic expectations.
Do content standards balance depth with breadth?
One of the most contentious features of content standards
is whether they emphasize breath (learning more individual
concepts and principles) or depth (learning a deep understanding).
Breadth provides a basis of more extensive knowledge,
but by its nature tends to focus on recall of knowledge,
simple understanding and memorization. Depth tends to
give students an organized framework that makes facts
meaningful, more easily remembered, and more oriented
to thinking and problem-solving. Recent large-scale research
studies, such as TIMSS, have shown that, for many schools,
the curriculum is is a mile wide and an inch deep,
resulting in lower student proficiency as compared to
systems that focus on depth. The Virginia SOL are judged
to be rigorous based on the amount of knowledge
to be demonstrated. Critics content that too much superficial
knowledge is required with correspondingly inadequate
emphasis on depth of understanding.
Do content standards provide a reasonable basis for
promoting positive reform and evaluating school practice?
As the foundation for school reform, content standards
should be developed so that changes in schools, curriculum,
and teaching promote the overall goals of education. Content
standards that are too detailed will lead to teaching
that is too prescriptive, while content standards that
are too broad will give little direction to reforming
Do content standards reflect what we know about student
learning, development, and motivation? Decades of
research in child development, learning, and motivation
has generated many principles to guide effective teaching.
Are content standards consistent with these principles?
We know that when learning is meaningful and when motivation
is based on a desire to understand (rather than just obtain
a reward), students will learn and retain more, and will
be more likely to want to learn more in the future. While
the term developmentally appropriate has been
debated by many, the fact is that there are research-based
guidelines about how children best learn and when it is
best to teach them.
Do performance standards clearly articulate levels
of achievement? It is tempting but misleading to
base performance standards solely on the percentage of
items on a test that are answered correctly. While there
is some logic to this approach, it may result in misleading
information because the referent is not clearly defined.
Good performance standards are defined by examples and
benchmarks that illustrate qualitatively different levels
of proficiency. It is not enough to simply say, for example,
only 36% of students are reading at or above the
basic level. From a policy perspective, to understand
what this result actually means, there is a need to examine
how basic was defined in terms of actual student
performance, and what a basic reader is able
to do that students who fail to meet this level are not
able to do.
Are performance standards based on absolutes rather
than normative comparisons? While normative comparative
information is valuable to help set performance standards,
the standards themselves must refer to a clearly defined
level of proficiency. It is not important or necessary
to rank students. Rather, as is done in Virginia, student
achievement should be compared to levels of achievement
as defined by the performance standards.
Are performance standards validated with other examples
of performance? An important consideration in setting
performance standards is whether the different levels
of achievement demonstrated are consistent with other,
independent measures of achievement. This is what provides
evidence that the performance standards are accurate.
Are performance standards different from expectations?
In the current dialog around standards-based reform the
term expectations is often used, usually in reference
to establishing higher or stronger
standards (e.g., high expectations). However
there is an important difference between standards and
expectations. Standards refer to established, common
levels of achievement. Expectations, on the other hand,
are judgments about the level of achievement that is most
likely to be demonstrated. Expectations are unique to
each individual, class, and school, and establish a baseline
from which we give meaningful feedback. To enhance motivation
and improve achievement, research has shown that challenging
but realistic expectations are needed. Realistic expectations
are not too high or too low. Unrealistic expectations
lead to student alienation and disengagement in the learning
Do performance standards include potential degrees
of error? All measures used to indicate whether students
meet performance standards contain some amount of error.
Accurate interpretations of results, therefore, must include
an understanding of how error may affect the scores and
resultant conclusions concerning performance standards.
One source of error that can have dramatic effects on
scores is student motivation. Students unmotivated to
perform as well as possible will end up with scores that
may indicate a failure to reach performance standards,
even though in reality they have the knowledge and/or
- Do performance standards consider the difficulty level
of the assessments? A simple example of a performance
standard is determining basic, proficient,
and advanced levels related to knowing state
capitals. If there is a 50 item multiple choice test, how
many items would a student need to get correct for a designation
of basic? How many more items to be proficient
or advanced? Such a judgment depends on the
difficulty of the items and professional judgment. Consider
these items, which differ in degree of difficulty:
The state capital of Virginia is:
a. New York
The state capital of Virginia is:
The setting of performance standards, without knowing how
difficult the test items are, can be highly misleading. Obviously,
scoring high on an easy test means something different than
scoring high on a difficult test. How do we know if a test
is easy or hard? Two sources of information are relied on,
1) professional judgments; and 2) comparative data. Experts
in subjects typically examine test items and make judgments
about difficulty based on their experience, as do those seeking
certain levels of competence, such as colleges and businesses.
Comparative data are often used, such as using longitudinal
data, interstate comparisons, and national and international
Recently released fifth grade math scores in North Carolina
illustrate the importance of test item difficulty. A new,
lower performance standard was set because the
new test was harder, but since nearly all students passed,
many believe that inflated scores discredit the
accountability program (Ziegenbalg, 2001).
Assessment of student progress and accountability are key
components of the standards movement. Assessment is the measurement
of student success against clearly defined content and performance
standards. Accountability implies systematic methods of reporting
assessment results, coupled with appropriate sanctions or
consequences, to ensure that both students and schools are
moving in the right direction. At least 45 states now have
accountability systems in place. Accountability consequences
include graduation requirements for students, accreditation
for schools, monetary incentives for teachers and schools,
and student retention in grade.
After a decade, standards-based reform continues to be the
major education policy initiative in the state and nation.
Clearly, the movement is not abating. Rather, as accountability
measures become a reality, the full force of the reform is
being experienced. Furthermore, standards-based education
is a pervasive movement, affecting all aspects of education.
For these reasons, it is important for policy-makers to continue
to monitor whether reforms that are being implemented are
consistent with the overall goals of the movement.
The Learning First Alliance, which has support from most
education organizations, suggest that continued attention
be given to five core concerns (2001):
- Alignment of standards, curriculum, and assessments.
- Adequate professional development for teachers and principals.
- Sufficient resources and support for each child to meet
- Communication about the importance of standards and accountability.
- Balanced and comprehensive accountability systems.
To increase the likelihood of positive impacts in Virginia,
policymakers will be involved in two key questions:
- How and when should the SOL be revised? Now that
the SOL have been in the field for several years, a process
for revisiting and revising the SOL is needed to keep pace
with new knowledge, to ensure that the standards are at
the right level (neither too specific or too general), to
ensure that appropriate balance is maintained between knowledge
and thinking skills, to ensure that there is increasing
depth and sophistication from grade to grade, and to ensure
that the central concepts, principles and substance of each
subject are emphasized. Virginia recently revised history
and social science standards.
- How do we know if the SOL initiative is working?
Given the considerable resources invested in standards-based
reform, good policy includes a research program to gather
systematic evidence concerning the impact of the standards
on teachers, administrators, curriculum, and teaching methods.
For example, research could be undertaken to benchmark performance
standards with other student outcome measures, e.g., school
awards, Stanford 9 and other standardized achievement tests,
SAT, and NAEP. Achieve, Inc. is an organization that provides
confidential benchmarking with other states.
Click here for summary of recent Virginia Legislative history
Virginia Standards of Learning.
Print and Internet Resources
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