Making Standards Matter, 2001

The AFT was an early advocate for standards-based education. In 1992, in response to national concerns that students in the United States were not learning enough to compete in a global economy and that there was an intolerable gap between the achievement of whites and blacks, the late Albert Shanker, then president of the AFT, urged states to take a lesson from other high-achieving countries and set clear and rigorous academic standards for all students; develop curriculum, professional development, and assessments based on these standards; and do whatever else was necessary to make sure that all children could meet the higher standards.

Standards-based reform as articulated by the AFT is an ordered process that includes well-developed standards and a curriculum to support their implementation; professional development for teachers; new assessments aligned to the standards; and fair incentives and sufficient resources to help students make the grade. Over the past decade, the states have been involved in creating standards-based systems, and AFT has been monitoring this process. Making Standards Matter, 2001 is the sixth in a series of AFT studies commenting on the progress of the standards movement. Like the others, it is based on data supplied by the states. The following article summarizes the findings of the latest study and recommends mid-course corrections we think necessary to the success of the standards movement.



• States' commitment to standards-based reform remains strong. Every state and the District of Columbia have set or are setting common academic standards for students. With the exception of Rhode Island, which is not setting standards for social studies, all states have or are developing standards in each of the four core subjects: English, mathematics, science, and social studies.

• The overall quality of the state standards continues to improve. Thirty states—up from 22 in 1999—have standards that meet AFT's common core criterion—that is, they are detailed, explicit, and firmly rooted in the content of the subject area. Many states with generally strong standards can still benefit from some fine-tuning, and it is encouraging to note that in the past two years, 44 states have developed new or revised standards, or additional documents that clarify their standards.

• However, most states have more difficulty setting clear and specific standards in English and social studies than in math and science:

1. Twenty-five states, up four from 1999, have English standards that meet the AFT criteria at all three levels—elementary, middle, and high school.

2. Math standards in 44 states, up three from 1999, are generally clear, specific, and grounded in content across all three levels. In fact, 47 states meet our criteria at the elementary level, 46 states meet them at the middle level, and 44 states meet them at the high school level.

3. In science, 39 states—a nine-state jump since 1999—meet the AFT criteria at all three levels. Forty-three states do so at the elementary level, 46 at the middle level, and 42 at the high school level.

4. Although there has been considerable improvement since 1999, social studies standards remain weak, and tend to lack specific references to United States and/or world history. Only seven states have social studies standards that are clear, specific, and grounded in content across all three levels of schooling. Twenty-seven states meet these criteria at the high school level, 28 at the middle level, and just 13 at the elementary level.


• State efforts to develop curriculum have just begun. We believe that a fully developed curriculum must contain the following components: a learning continuum, instructional resources and strategies, performance indicators, and lesson plans. No state has in place a curriculum that meets standards, and 41 states and the District of Columbia have developed less than 50 percent of the curriculum components.

• It is not surprising to discover that English, with an emphasis on the foundational skills of reading and writing, would receive the most attention in early efforts by states to create curriculum. Fifteen states have at least three of the curriculum components in English at all three levels of schooling, 11 states have at least three of the curriculum components in math at all three levels, and nine states have at least three in science and social studies at all three levels.


• States are doing a lot of testing:

1. Every state but one tests students at all three levels in English and mathematics. Twenty-eight states test students in English, mathematics, science, and social studies at least once at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

2. Thirty-two states assess science at the elementary level, 35 at the middle level, and 40 at the high school level; comparable figures for social studies are 28, 31, and 35 respectively.

3. Sixteen states annually test reading and mathematics in grades 3 through 8.

• Every state is committed to aligning tests with the standards, an important step in systemic reform. However, only nine states have aligned tests in the four core subject areas at all three education levels. States use a mixture of commercially developed, off-the-shelf standardized tests, and their own—home-grown— assessments to measure and report on student achievement:

1. Thirty-one states are administering one or more tests that do not meet our criteria for alignment.

2. States are more likely to specify what standards will be assessed in English and math—28 do so in English and 26 in math—than in science and mathematics, where 12 and 11, respectively, do so.


• Only 25 states, a decrease of three states since 1999, require and fund academic intervention programs in at least one subject at one level for students who are struggling to meet the standards. To help all students reach high standards, schools must identify those students who are having trouble and give them the extra help they need to succeed.

Early intervention can prevent problems from snowballing, and it represents a more promising option for addressing underachievement than either retention or social promotion, the practice of passing students from grade to grade regardless of whether they have mastered the standards. Programs can take a variety of forms—after-school tutoring, one-on-one tutoring, and Saturday school, to name a few—but whatever the form, intervention must reach struggling students early. Identifying and providing intervention to underachieving students is an expensive undertaking. States, at a minimum, should share that cost with districts:

1. Although 38 states require districts to provide intervention to students who are struggling, only 22 provide funding to districts earmarked specifically for intervention. Furthermore, intervention may not begin early enough. For example, Minnesota does not fund intervention before the eighth grade.

2. Twenty-eight states require and/or fund intervention in the four core subjects, and 23 of these states do so at all three educational levels.

• Seventeen states have policies for ending social promotion. When we first began to monitor promotion policies in 1996, only three states based promotion in part on student achievement. Today, 17 states do.

• Graduation exams are the most common way for states to hold students accountable for learning. This year, 27 states have committed to linking their high school diploma to achieving the standards in at least one subject area, and nine states measure student performance in all four core subjects. This development must be watched closely because there is some evidence to suggest that imposing high school exit exams drives up the dropout rate. States that have graduation policies should be vigilant to ensure that they are providing services to students to keep them in school.

• Thirty states, up from 23 in 1999, have or are developing incentives like advanced diplomas or free college tuition to motivate students to achieve a higher standard than that required of all students:

1. Twenty-four states have or will have advanced diplomas for students who reach more than the minimum required for graduation.

2. Fifteen states, up from just eight in 1999, offer college admissions, free tuition, and/or stipends to students who meet a higher standard on state assessments and/or who take advanced courses.

Do States Have Coherent Standards-Based Systems in Place?

The AFT has called on states to develop coherent, standards-based systems. Although there has been considerable progress in states' efforts to develop these systems since we first began monitoring the process in 1995, states still have a long way to go.

• Almost a third of the tests are based on weak standards: 11 percent of the math testing, 12 percent of the science testing, 38 percent of the English testing, and 48 percent of the social studies testing.

• Many state assessment programs use tests that are not aligned to their standards. To judge fairly and accurately how well students or schools are doing in meeting state standards, the tests must assess what students are supposed to learn:

1. Forty-three percent of the elementary tests, 46 percent of the middle school tests, and 44 percent of the high school tests are not aligned with the standards.

• A number of states use results from nonaligned tests to hold back students or to deny them a diploma. If the state is going to impose sanctions for not meeting the standards based in part on test results, then it is essential that the tests measure what the standards call for. Thirty-three percent of tests used as part of a determination for promotion or high school graduation are not aligned to the standards.

• Many states impose sanctions on students but fail to mandate interventions and to provide the resources to help them:

1. Fifty-four percent of the states that use tests as part of the decision to deny a diploma do not mandate and fund intervention for students who fail the tests.

2. Forty-two percent of the states that use test results for promotion decisions at the middle school level and 40 percent that use them at the elementary school level do not mandate and fund such programs.


Given the current context for the development and implementation of standards-based reforms, the AFT recommends the following:

• In regard to standards, the states should,

1. Explain the standards they set and the performance levels they require for meeting them. Parents and teachers rightly ask, "Is the standard realistic?" States should compare their standards, assessments, and results with those of high-performing countries.

2. Make sure that social studies standards are specific about the United States and world history that students should learn at each of the three educational levels.

3. Provide examples of standards and of student work at various grades and performance levels so that teachers, students, parents, and the public all know what is expected.

• In regard to curricula, states should,

1. Involve teachers in the development of grade-by-grade curricula aligned to the standards in the core subject.

2. Specify the learning continuum in the core subjects to show the progression and development of critical knowledge and skills from grade to grade.

3. Identify instructional resources—reading materials, textbooks, software, and so forth—that are aligned to the standards.

4. Provide information on instructional strategies or techniques to help teach the standards.

5. Provide performance indicators to clarify the quality of student work required for mastery of the content standards.

6. Develop lesson-plan data banks that include exemplary lessons and student work related to instruction in the standards.

7. Provide guidance and incentives to schools so that they attend to important areas of the curriculum that are not assessed—e.g., art, music, foreign languages.

• In regard to assessments and their use, states should,

1. Phase in consequences related to tests to ensure that districts have adequate time to implement curricula, professional development, and intervention systems.

2. Work to improve test instruments to ensure that the results reflect students' skills and knowledge at the appropriate grade and performance level. Well-designed assessments should also provide schools and districts with useful and timely information about the strengths and weaknesses of their instructional program, enabling them to improve professional development programs and target interventions and other resources more effectively.

3. Give students multiple opportunities to pass high-stakes assessments, and develop an appeals process for high-stakes decisions.

4. Not put all the weight on a single test when making important decisions about students. Look for confirmatory evidence from other indicators of achievement including student work samples, performance assessments, other standardized tests, and the like.

5. Acknowledge and reward student achievement gains, not just absolute levels of academic achievement.

6. Report the progress of achievement in schools and districts by categories of student—e.g., grade level, racial and ethnic group, socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency, special education.

7. Provide benchmarks for different levels of student performance on high-stakes assessments—thus creating the foundation for differentiated diplomas based on the results of high school exit exams. In this way, states could raise the bar for all students while providing an extra incentive for students who strive to excel beyond the standard.

• In regard to intervention, states should,

1. Provide high-quality preschool programs for all students and early intervention for students identified as at risk for not meeting the standards.

2. Provide adequate resources to ensure that students have access to any extra assistance they need to learn the material. This might require smaller classes, alternative settings for disruptive students, and extra time with a well-trained instructor, as well as access to any specialists and special services that are necessary.

3. Help to identify or develop the curricula, materials, and instructional approaches that can be used in effective intervention programs.

4. Provide the funds for continued implementation and monitoring of such programs.

In sum, if states are to achieve their goal of educating all students to a high standard, they must develop comprehensive and coherent standards-based systems. Attention must be given to the quality of the individual elements that make up the system—standards, curriculum, assessment, professional development for teachers, intervention for students. The standards must be strong because they are the bedrock of the system, and the assessments must be aligned to the standards and be credible in terms of the knowledge and skills students are expected to master. Further, states must bear in mind that in a standards-based system, the primary purpose of assessments is to ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed at the next level and to trigger assistance for those who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Therefore, the tests must identify students who need help and ensure that districts have the necessary resources they need to provide that help.

When essential elements of a standards-based system are missing or underdeveloped—as they are in many states where testing runs ahead of strong standards or where tests are not aligned to the standards—failure rates may be excessive and test scores inaccurate, and students and their parents may become frustrated and angry. If these problems persist, the promise of standards-based reform will remain unmet.

The full report can be ordered with prepayment of $10 per copy or $8 per copy for five or more copies (includes shipping and handling), from the AFT Order Department, 555 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20001.
American Educator, Winter 2001