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Standards for Student Learning

Definitions and Descriptions, Historical Context, Comparing Past and Present, Potential for Success

Standards, as they are used in education, are verbal statements of goals or desired classes of outcomes. They describe what the goals of the system are. Standards-based educational reform has the intention of having most or all students reach identified standards and of organizing educational services, including teacher preparation and instructional interventions, to address such standards. The rhetorical linchpin of such a system is the standards themselves.

Definitions and Descriptions

Standards differ according to function and have fallen into at least three overlapping classifications. Content standards are intended to describe domain-specific topics, for example, student performance in areas of mathematics, such as measurement or probability, or in physics, such as force and motion. National professional groups, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Historical Association, for example, have reached professional consensus about such standards. States have also put into place panels intended to recommend such standards for adoption to their state boards of education. School districts may choose to augment, focus, or redefine content standards adopted by their state. Content standards are often arrayed in a continuum of development, specifying, for instance, particular standards for eighth-grade students or for beginning readers or those standards thought to be necessary to meet high school graduation requirements. Skill standards are explications of either a fundamental skill, such as reading, or job-performance standards, such as the ability to work in teams. Skill standards are often, although not always, independent of a particular content domain.

Performance standards, unfortunately, is a term used to denote two very different concepts, and users often fail to be explicit about their interpretation. Some educators use performance standards as a means to describe the "what" of education further or to give examples of tasks that fit particular content standards. Performance standards of this type are intended to communicate more clearly the intention of general content or skill standards. Good performance standards should link up to the design of assessments intended to measure the standards, although they are usually at some distance from that process. For example, the content standard "to understand the causes of major historical events in American history" might be illustrated by a description that says "The student will be given primary source documents related to an important historical era, such as the American Revolution or the Great Depression, and be asked to identify alternative explanations for the causes offered by different historical writers." The student will evaluate these arguments and use source material to explain in an essay which perspectives are most reasonable. These performance standards might then be augmented with a sample task and scoring scheme for a set of such essays.

The second type of performance standard delimits the degree of proficiency, or the "how much" part, of performance. These performance standards are invoked following the development of assessments designed or selected to measure student performance of the standards. Frequently, these performance standards are described in terms intended to give a rough scale of competence, such as basic, proficient, or advanced. The operational definition of these standards is usually based on a cutscore–the dividing score between classifications–for example, "above 75 points." The underlying theory of standards-based reform is that it is criterion referenced. This means that performance of the system is judged in the light of attainment of the standards as measured by particular tests and assessments. Because the inferences drawn about educational improvement strongly depend on the validity of these achievement levels, or performance standards, they are of critical importance.

Historical Context

In the United States the 1990s were the decade of educational policy on standards and assessments. Following on the educational reforms in Great Britain in the late 1980s, the movement in the United States was propelled by a connected and unprecedented set of events: the meeting of state governors at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1989 establishing national educational goals; the release that same year of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards, describing expectations for an integrated and applied form of mathematics learning; the 1992 report of the deliberations of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing; and the enactment of the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994, tying compensatory education resources to evaluations of progress toward standards.

The focus on educational standards as the basis for targeting and evaluating student learning seems the product of the 1990s but has, in fact, a venerable educational history. To understand the idea of standards for student learning, it is instructive to consider how the concepts of standards and assessments developed. The conception of standards and assessments can be traced to the 1951 writings of Ralph W. Tyler on curriculum and instruction in the "garden-variety schools." Tyler constructed the problem of improving education with admirable logic. In his view, schools should organize themselves as entities seeking to produce learning and achievement. Outcome measures of learning and achievement should be considered the proximal ends of education. These ends, in order to be pursued in a reasonable way, required deliberate decisions made by educators and other interested parties. Tyler addressed the task of determining educational objectives in a systematic way. He described three potential sources for generating learning objectives: the subject matter discipline, the society, and the needs of learners. Because this process was sure to generate too many objectives, candidate objectives were to be filtered by using screens of two types. The first screen was the psychology of learning, to answer through the application of theory and empirical knowledge the question of feasibility. The set was to be winnowed by the question "Can the objectives be taught and learned?" The second screen to reduce and make coherent standards was to articulate and apply a simple but integrated philosophy of education. This philosophical screen was to answer questions of priority and coherence as well as value: "What goals are important and matter most?"

The remainder of Tyler's argument, called his rationale, focused on a systematic plan for teaching and learning and addressed criteria for the selection of learning opportunities, the creation of measures of achievement and other outcomes to match the objectives, and ways to involve feedback to improve the quality of education over time. Although there was considerable excess in the 1960s and 1970s in the focus on operational, behaviorally oriented objectives, there was some evidence that the system worked. The Tyler rationale was an object of study in the 1960s and the 1970s but is no longer in the working memory of many educators, who believe that the standards-based reform movement is a newly minted concept and revolutionary in its systemic focus.

Comparing Past and Present

Academic disciplines. Two principal sources provided standards in the 1990s. The first was the academic disciplines, led by professional organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989, the joint effort of the International Reading Association/National Council of Teachers of English in 1994, the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the National Research Council in 1995, and the National Council of Teachers of English in 1996. These groups either took on or were assigned the leadership position on the generation of standards (goals) for schools in their subject matters. The overwhelming use of this source made great sense because the rhetoric around standards pointed to the use of "new and challenging" standards intended to support the learning of all children. In the public's mind, challenging standards equaled academic-or discipline-based learning. The experts, as they had in the curriculum reforms in the late 1960s and 1970s, once again weighed in on what students should learn in school. Perhaps in response to behaviorism in goal statements, these statements of standards are often global and subject to multiple interpretations.

Society. The second source for the generation of standards was the society. This source was narrowed to standards that were regarded as important in the workplace. Reports of needed skills from the state of Michigan, from national research studies, from analyses of labor markets, and from the work of the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills devoted attention to requirements for success in employment. The argument for these sets of skills was tied to the importance of U.S. economic competition, and the sense, at the beginning of the 1990s, that the United States might be permanently eclipsed on the one hand by the economic dynamos in the Far East and on the other by the power of the emerging European community. This specter was bolstered by the reports of international comparisons of educational achievement showing that U.S. student performance was far lower than had been imagined and hovered in the not-so-good to truly miserable ranges. Consequently, societal sources of objectives took on four different varieties. The first was a set of new tasks, heretofore not emphasized in the academic side of schools; a good example was teamwork. In teamwork the emphasis was on roles and functions of team members rather than on "spirit." Second were fundamental skills, such as reading and computation, skills lacking in entry-level employees. Third, there was a new emphasis on applied problem solving, both the inventive type and the application or modifications of algorithms necessary for key procedures. The fourth category of standards was in the general affective area and involved responsibility, leadership, and service orientation. For the most part, these four strands of tasks were not reconciled.

Students' needs. A third source of Tyler's goals, the student's individual needs, found its way into standards through the focus on cognitive psychology, where the fundamentals of reading comprehension or mathematics problem solving, or the explanation of subject-matter content, and meta-cognition emphasized cognitive processes needed to display deep understanding. The promise of this approach was increased transfer. Such approaches often targeted integrative or project learning, but usually without addressing the transfer issue. For the most part, however, this source of objectives played out more directly in the application of the psychology screen and in the construction of assessments.

Changing expectations. A cynic might argue that the entire reform is explained by the psychological measure of paired associates, and that all that has been done is to substitute the term standards for goals and objectives, and the softer sounding assessment for the term test. Yet, the expectations for education have changed dramatically from the 1930s and 1940s. Education has become regarded as a right by society for a far greater proportion of learners than ever before. Society has changed scale and comprises greater numbers of individuals with different cultural, language, and economic backgrounds. Many differ substantially in their views of their own goals and prospects, the degree to which they embrace traditional American values, and the value they place on alternative ways to attain their own goals. It is clear that development of educational systems does not happen linearly on a cycle that supports achieving high levels of quality in one component (standards, for example) before attacking the next (e.g., the development of instruction). Paradoxically, it is probably best to act as if a logical, step-by-step process could guide the decisions about present or future practice, or at least as if superimposing a staged process were important. Without a framework as a guide for actions and understanding, it is difficult to think about such a complex system, in which institutions and organizations must respond to market pressures, to teacher-capacity variations, to economic shifts, technical advances, and the competitive strut of contending policy perspectives.

Potential for Success

Will these standards work to improve education? Standards will be useful as a communication device to rally educators and the public. The system will fail programmatically and substantively, however, unless serious effort is taken to connect measures systematically to the standards, to set realistic priorities about what standards can be achieved (as opposed to the enormous numbers typically adopted by states and localities), and to emphasize the essential acts of teaching and learning in the system. Arbitrary standards for achievement are set, and are used to judge a school or system and to assign sanctions based on putative standards-based performance. This strategy attempts to assign uniformity to schools and systems that are inherently different–in governance, in capacity, and in development. For the system to succeed in the context of democratic educational institutions, policymakers will need to take steps to assure that growth in performance on measures is attributable to teaching and learning rather than to practices intended simply to raise test scores artificially. They will need to understand more systematically and procedurally what they mean when they claim a system is "aligned," and they will need to address forthrightly what requirements there may be to ensure the rising performance of all students.


Improving America's Schools Act of 1994. 1994. H.R. 6, 103rd Congress, 2nd Session.

INTERNATIONAL READING ASSOCIATION/NATIONAL COUNCIL OF TEACHERS OF ENGLISH. 1994. Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English.

NATIONAL COUNCIL OF TEACHERS OF ENGLISH. 1996. Standards for the English Language Arts. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English and International Reading Association.

NATIONAL COUNCIL OF TEACHERS OF MATHEMATICS. 1989. Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

NATIONAL COUNCIL OF TEACHERS OF MATHEMATICS. 1989. Curriculum Standards for Teaching Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

NATIONAL COUNCIL ON EDUCATION STANDARDS AND TESTING. 1992. Raising Standards for American Education: A Report to Congress, the Secretary of Education, the National Education Goals Panel, and the American People. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. 1995. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

O'NEIL, HAROLD F., JR.; ALLRED, KEITH; and BAKER, EVA L. 1997. "Review of Workforce Readiness Theoretical Frameworks." In Workforce Readiness: Competencies and Assessment, ed. Harold F. O'Neil Jr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

SMITH, MARSHALL, and O'DAY, JENNIFER. 1991. "Systemic School Reform." In The Politics of Curriculum and Testing, ed. Susan Fuhrman and Betty Malen. Philadelphia: Falmer.

TYLER, RALPH W. 1951. "The Functions of Measurement in Improving Instruction." In Educational Measurement, ed. Everet F. Lindquist. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR. 1991. What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.



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