6.1 Set Good Standards
Prior to 2010, grade-level expectations were set separately in each state. Some, like California, had comparatively high standards. Others had low standards. In a few cases, states actually lowered their standards in order to avoid looking bad in national rankings. In 2010, the Federal “Race to the Top” competition highlighted the mess and prompted a national alignment of standards. Suddenly, state standards had more in common than virtually anyone had imagined possible.
California joined a consortium of states by adopting a set of “Common Core” standards for its students. These standards, or others similar to them, were adopted by most states during the “Race to the Top” competition in 2010. The standards describe what students are expected to know at each grade level, in each subject, regardless of where they go to school. (For insights about some of the behind-the-scenes knife fights involved in this transition search for “common core” on Google.)
Standards are important. They influence textbooks and learning materials. Teachers plan their lessons to ensure that students acquire the knowledge required by the standards. Standardized tests are designed to evaluate student performance in comparison to these standards. (Well, OK – for those inclined to nitpick there are also tests that are purely designed for competitive purposes, to sort students out in stack-rank fashion. That isn’t the point of the standards-based tests.)
For some states, adopting the common core standards significantly increased grade level expectations. This was not the case in California, which has a tradition of high standards.
Grade-level standards cover many subjects, from math to physical education. The standards wield different levels of influence depending on how they are used. For example, math and reading standards strongly influence the tests that are used to compare schools to one another. Content standards for art and music are not used in the same way.
In business, there is a saying that “what gets measured gets managed.” In education, the equivalent is “what gets tested gets taught.” Over time, tested subjects such as math and English have received more focus than those that are less often measured.
The tendency to spend more energy, time and resources on tested subjects can result in a phenomenon called “narrowing the curriculum.” To provide comparable structure for other subjects and skills, some proponents of a well-rounded education suggest standards should be adopted and tested for “life skill” learning such as time management, self-control, teamwork, and personal finance.
Are these expectations sufficient? In the next post, Make the Basics Rigorous, we will explore the debate about whether expectations can be too high.