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Policy Issues - Standards / Assessment / Accountability

James McMillan, Editor

The Virginia Standards of Learning

Descriptive Context

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 Virginia’s 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 educational reform
  • 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 for work.
  • 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 is published.
  • 1996:  Second national education summit is held to support efforts to set clear academic standards.
  • 1997:  President Clinton proposes national standards and tests.
  • 1998:  Goals 2000:  Reforming Education to Improve Student Performance.
  • 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.

Differing Perspectives

Like most school reform initiatives, standards-based education has it’s 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 reform.

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, 2001).

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 policy-makers.

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 point to:
    • 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 30 years.
    • 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 doesn’t 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 teens.

  • 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 is false.

  • 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 effect.

  • 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” school?


Snapshots of Researrch and Court Decisions

  • 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 Virginia’s history standards as the best among 37 states and the District of Columbia.
  • 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).


The Issue in Practice

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.

Content Standards

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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 and revised.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 it’s 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.

  6. 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 education.

  7. 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.

Performance Standards

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 process.

  5. 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 skills.

  6. 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
    b. Richmond
    c. Miami
    d. Chicago

    The state capital of  Virginia is:

    a. Norfolk
    b. Roanoke
    c. Richmond
    d. Charlottesville

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 comparisons.

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).


Related Issues

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.


CEPI Summary

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):

  1. Alignment of standards, curriculum, and assessments.
  2. Adequate professional development for teachers and principals.
  3. Sufficient resources and support for each child to meet higher standards.
  4. Communication about the importance of standards and accountability.
  5. Balanced and comprehensive accountability systems.

To increase the likelihood of positive impacts in Virginia, policymakers will be involved in two key questions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Legislative History

Click here for summary of recent Virginia Legislative history of “The Virginia Standards of Learning.”


Sources, Cites, Links

Print and Internet Resources

Achieve, Inc. (2001). Standards: How high is high enough? Achieve Policy Brief, issue3, Spring.

Brady, M.  (2000).  The standards juggernaut.  Phi Delta Kappa International, 2000.

Christie, M. (2001). The Standards of learning work because the tests count. Virginia Issues and Answers, 7(2), 30-31.

Finn, C. E., Jr. & Petrilli, M. J. (2000).  The state of state standards. Fordham Report, Vol. 2 (5). Washington, DC:  Fordham Foundation.

Gagnon, P.  (1995).  What should children learn?  The Atlantic Monthly.

Goals 2000:  Implementing standards-based reform, (1998)

Gratz, D. (2000).  High standards for whom?  Phi Delta Kappa International.

Jennings, J.  (1998).  Why national standards and tests?  Politics and the quest for better schools.   Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

K-12 Standards: Content Knowledge. (2000). Aurora, Co.: Mid-Continent Regional Education Laboratory.

Kendall, J. S., & Marzano, R. J.  (1997).  Content knowledge:  A compendium of standards and benchmarks for k-12 education (2nd Ed.), Aurora, CO:  Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory and Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marzano, R. (1996).  Eight questions about implementing standards-based education. ERIC Digest, ED410230.

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (1996).  A comprehensive guide to designing standards-based districts, schools, and classrooms.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Massell, D., Kirst, M., & Hoppe, M. (2000).  Persistence and change:  Standards-based systemic reform in nine states.  Denver, CO:  Education Commission of the States, 2000.

Pritchard, I. (1998).  Judging standards in standards-based reform,  Council for Basic Education.

Reality Check 2001, (2001). Public Agenda & Education Week.

Saxe, D. W.  (1998).  State History Standards:  An Appraisal of History Standards in 37 States and the District of Columbia, Fordham Report  2 (1), Washington, DC:  Fordham Foundation.

Sirotnik, K, & Kimball, K.  (1999).  Standards for standards-based accountability systems Phil Delta Kappan 81(3), 209-214.

Standards and accountability: A call by the Learning First Alliance for mid-course corrections. (2001). Learning First Alliance.

Standards:  Making them useful and workable for the education enterprise, (1997). U.S. Department of Education.

Quality Counts ’99:  Rewarding results, punishing failure.  (1999).  Education Week, Marion, OH:  Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Quality counts 01: A better balance: Standards, testing, and the tools to succeed (2001). Education Week, Marion, OH: Educational Projects in Education, Inc.

Ziegenbalg, D. (2001) 5th-grade math scores raise questions about validity. Winston-Salem Journal, May 22.


Achieve, Inc

Business roundtable

Council for Basic Education

Education Excellence Partnership

Educational Commission of the States

Education Leaders Council (Washington, DC).

Fordham Foundation

Learning First Alliance

Mid-continent Educational Regional Laboratory (McREL) database of national and state standards

National Alliance of Business

Public Agenda

State standards


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