In 1994, the U.S. Department of Education, under President Clinton, released a startling report that documented how much less learning was expected of children in poor schools than in other schools (OERI, 1994). Researchers examined the math and English grades received by a sampling of students from poor and affluent schools and compared these grades with the students' actual math achievement using test scores from the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88). They found that, on average, students with the same knowledge of math earned a "D" if they attended a low-poverty school—but earned an "A" if they attended a high-poverty school. (Results were similar for English.) In short, students in high-poverty schools were held to lower standards than were their middle-class counterparts.
Then in 1995 came TIMSS, the Third International Math and Science Study, which compared student achievement in 41 countries (Beaton et al., 1996). On the 8th-grade math assessment, 25 countries met the study's methodological requirements. Of these 25, U.S. achievement was surpassed by 14 countries, including all the Asian and about half the European countries. News stories were quick to point out that the countries we "beat" were the vastly poorer Lithuania, Cyprus, Portugal, and Iran.
Concerns about the lack of equity and quality among America's schools weighed heavily on the minds of governors, especially in the poorer South. Standards-based reform received an additional boost from RAND researchers David Grissmer and Ann Flanagan's reports (1998, 2000) showing that the two states with an early commitment to standards and accountability—Texas and North Carolina—were posting the greatest gains on NAEP. Grissmer and Flanagan reviewed NAEP data from 1992–1996 and found that, when controlling for demographic factors, North Carolina and Texas had "greater combined student achievement gains in math and reading than any other states." According to the researchers, in addition to having in place such prerequisites as pre-K and smaller classes for low-income students, "the most plausible explanation [is] found in the policy environment ... the keys ... include[d]: creating an aligned system of standards, curriculum, and assessments; [and] holding schools accountable for improvement by all students."
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