Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Educational Change/Standards

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What is the role of standards?
These reforms express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America.

—President George W. Bush, January 2001

According to Robert L. Linn, standards have played a prominent role in education during the past 50 years. In the 1950s, under the influence of James B. Conant, testing was used to select students for higher education and to identify students for gifted programs. In the 1960s, testing was used to measure the effectiveness of Title I and other federal programs. In the 1970s and early 1980s, state testing to measure basic skills was developed and became a graduation requirement in 34 states. This minimum competency testing continued into the late 1980s and early 1990s and was overlapped by a movement toward the use of standardized test results for accountability purposes (Linn,1).

This use of standardized testing is still used in today's schools and has developed even greater emphasis with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001(NCLB). The NCLB Act is an education reform effort proposed by President George W. Bush passed into law by Congress on January 8, 2002. Two important areas of the NCLB Act directly affecting the role standards play in today's educational system include increased accountability for states, school districts, and schools and a greater choice for parents and students, particularly concerning which schools to attend. The role of education standards has became the primary tool for assessing implementation of these key principles of the act.

A Closer Look at No Child Left Behind[edit]

The role of standards is very evident in the assessment of the first principle of the NCLB Act: increased accountability for states, school districts, and schools. According to the Executive Summary of the NCLB Act, it is required that states implement an accountability system covering all public schools and students. These systems require state standards in reading and math and annual testing for students in grades 3-8. Schools failing to make yearly progress toward state goals will have to undergo corrective action to help them meet state standards. The bill prohibits any “national testing” or federally-controlled curricula. It is the responsibility of the states to design their own tests and to make sure their tests are aligned to their state curriculum standards. Federal funding is provided to states to develop their tests. The test results are required to be made public annually. The test results are divided and reported according to poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited English proficiency. This process is known as “disaggregation of data” and is used to prevent the lumping of all students together to hide the achievement gaps within certain groups of students.

States had until the 2005-06 school year to develop and implement their tests. Schools and school districts are now required to show “adequate yearly progress” (A.Y.P.) toward demonstrating with their test scores that they are on course to reach 100 percent proficiency for all groups of students within 12 years. States decide what is acceptable for A.Y.P. Schools that fall behind may be subject to various “school improvement measures.” States will also have to compare their test results against an independent benchmark called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which will be given to a small sample of each state’s 4th and 8th grade students. The purpose of the NAEP is to insure that the state standards are not set too low (Executive,1). The role of standards are very important in insuring that states, school districts, and local schools are being held accountable for student performance.

Standards also play a very important role in deciding how Title I funds are spent. According to the Executive Summary, the NCLB act increases the choices available for parents and students. If a school is identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring, students must be given the opportunity to attend a better performing public school. The district must provide transportation to the school and use at least 5 percent of its Title I funds for this purpose. Schools that consistently fail to meet state standards for at least 3 of the 4 preceding years must use Title I funds to obtain supplemental services from the public or private sector. To help maintain standards, local educational agencies offer productive choices. NCLB requires districts to spend 20 percent of their Title I money to provide school choice and supplemental programs to eligible students. The school choice and supplemental program portion of NCLB provides incentives to poor performing schools to improve performance on state standards to prevent losing portions of their budgets (Executive,1-2).

Since the beginning of the NCLB act there has been some significant changes in the performance of students in America. Some of these high performances are: "more progress had been made by nine-year-olds in the past five years than in the past 28 years combined, nine-year-olds have posted the best reading and math scores since the early seventies and thirteen-year-olds have posted the best math scores ever, math tests for African American and Hispanic 13-year-olds were at an all time high, and forty three states and D.C. either improved academically or held steady in all categories" (wiki). However, even though there has been a change for the better in our nation's schools there is still backlash that NCLB is not the best act to help failing schools. Some people feel that there is not enough funding from the federal government, others feel that with the incentives set up and penalties given that test will be manipulated, and others feel that with standardized testing teachers will teach to take tests instead of learning for real world applications. However, NCLB has improved many schools and with the right administration and teachers it can help bridge the gap between top schools and Title I schools.


The role standards have played in education has always been a controversial one. Despite the 50-year history of standards in education, it is still not clear if they are a reliable source of indicating educational quality. The NCLB act has heightened this debate and has been highly criticized for its dependence on testing standards. According to K-8 principal and Vice-Chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Deborah Meier, “The current push for national and state-mandated standards is fundamentally misguided. It leads inevitably to standardization, which is the antithesis of real education. It will not help develop young minds, contribute to a robust democratic life, or aid the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens. By shifting the focus of authority to outside bodies, it undermines the capacity of schools to instruct by example in the qualities of mind that schools in a democracy should be fostering in kids—responsibility for one’s own ideas, tolerance for the ideas of others, and a capacity to negotiate differences. Standardization instead turns teachers and parents into the local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment. It thus decreases the chances of young people growing up in the midst of adults who are making hard decisions and exercising mature judgment in the face of disagreements. And it squeezes out those schools and educators with innovative ideas” (Meier,1).

Proponents of using standards in educational reform argue, however, that testing is a necessary way to maintain accountability. According to President George W. Bush, “How do you know if a child is learning if you don’t test?” (Marsha, 1).

Colleen Ruggieri, an English teacher-turned-consultant for the Ohio state department, believes that the current standards, while flawed, have motivated some critical changes. More than anything, she says, the emphasis on standards has pushed many teachers to do what they might never have done, collaborate: “While autonomy is a wonderful thing, it can be even greater when coupled with the gift of collaboration. Most high school teachers understand the feeling of isolation. Sadly, a career lacking in communication with colleagues can lead to burnout and loss of enthusiasm. With the evolution of the standards movement, I have watched teachers in my state strike up stimulating conversations with a sense of renewed enthusiasm” (Ruggieri 15).

Ruggieri also points out that the emphasis on standards has allowed teachers to focus less on the textbook for curriculum development. This, she says, frees teachers up to spend more time assessing what students know beforehand, and allows them to use their judgment more in deciding what to teach (Ruggieri 15-16).

Regardless of the controversy created by the use of standards in education, their role will continue to be an important one for all educators.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

If a teacher wanted to research the education reform bill that greatly influenced the importance of the role standards play in their classroom, which bill would this involve?
A. Elementary and Secondary Education Act
B. No Child Left Behind Act
C. The Standardization Reform Act
D. None of the above

B. No Child Left Behind Act

Which president proposed the education reform bill that has so greatly influenced the importance of standards in education today?
A. Lyndon B. Johnson
B. Bill Clinton
C. George W. Bush
D. None of the above

C. George W. Bush

The area school board is deciding on the implementation of state standards. Which two areas of the NCLB act do the role of standards play a vital role in.
A. Accountability and parent/student choice
B. Safe school policies
C. Testing and standards policies
D. None of the above

A. Accountability and parent/student choice

A state is planning to implement state standards to meet the requirements of the NCLB act? What is the deadline for implementing these standards.
A. 2004-05
B. 2005-06
C. 2006-07
D. None of the above

B. 2005-06

A state is reviewing their test scores. They received a 60% proficiency on the state standardized test. According to the NCLB all states must reach what percentage of proficiency within 12 years?
A. 70%
B. 80%
C. 90%
D. 100%

D. 100%

In the eyes of some people what is one downside to NCLB?
A. Teachers have to take time out of their day to read up on NCLB.
B. Some kids are not good test takers.
C. Some feel teachers will teach to take tests.
D. Tests are no fun.

C. Some feel teachers will teach to take tests.

What is one of the progresses that has happened since NCLB has been implemented?
A. Nine-year-olds have posted the best reading and math skills since the early seventies.
B. Math tests were at a all time high for African Americans and Hispanic 13-year-olds.
C. 13-year-olds have posted the best math skills ever.
D. All of the above.

D. All of the above.

Why are some fearful of federal funding?
A. Districts will manipulate test scores.
B. There is not enough of it.
C. Both A & B.
D. None of the above.

C. Both A & B.

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

Describe the two principles of the No Child Left Behind Act that have a direct impact on the role that standards play in education.

The No Child Left Behind Act is composed of two defining principles that directly correspond with the standards set in our current education system: accountability of states, school districts, and schools and a greater choice of schools for parents and students. The first principle of accountability has held students, teachers, and school systems more responsible for ensuring each grade level is learning age appropriate material. Each state is responsible for creating their own state standards in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 and core content areas for high school students in grades 9-12. Schools who fail to make yearly progress (AYP) must follow a corrective action plan in order to meet state standards. Although this principle has met considerable ridicule, creating standards has allowed our schools to be sure they are meeting the basic needs of our students. It is a teacher’s responsibility to push students past that standard to higher goals; the standard is nothing more than a bar for teachers and students to raise. The second principle allows parents and students who are enrolled at a school that is identified as needing improvement to find a school that is better performing. It is the responsibility of the school needing improvement to ensure that student gets to the better performing school. This principle is yet another incentive for schools to meet the state standard.