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Grading School Standards
A tale of two studies.


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Chester E. Finn Jr.

“Del. math standards earn an F,” proclaimed the Wilmington News-Journal on Wednesday, January 6. The next morning, however, an article by the same reporter declared “New report praises school standards.”

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Similar sequences occurred in many states. The Dayton Daily News, for example, declared on Wednesday that Ohio’s math standards had been marked down to a “D” and, on Thursday, that they had earned an “A.”

What’s going on? And why care? The latter question is easy: The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act puts enormous weight on state-level academic standards, with more emphasis yet to come as a result of the President’s new high-school reform and testing initiative. It’s crucial to know whether those standards are up to the challenge. The wildly discrepant judgments being rendered across the land, however, reveal key differences in criteria and education values, a wide gap in what one might term “standards for standards,” as the two recent studies made vivid. This is no purely academic dispute; a state that’s told it’s doing fine when in fact its standards are lacking is apt to wind up giving children a poor education even as it thinks it’s “reforming.”

The first study came from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. We asked independent experts to update earlier reviews of state K-12 school standards in math and English. They found that only Massachusetts, California, and Indiana merited “A” grades in both core subjects, even as three other states (Connecticut, Washington, Wyoming) earned “F’s” for both. Mediocrity was the norm. In reaching that glum conclusion, our reviewers focused mainly on the standards’ content, i.e. whether the skills and knowledge that a state expects its teachers to impart and its pupils to learn in a subject at particular grade levels are well chosen, comprehensive, accurate, etc.

The second study–conferring higher marks on Delaware, Ohio, and many other places–is called “Quality Counts,” an annual review by the editors of Education Week. It grades states on myriad topics including “standards and accountability.” In 2005, only Iowa (which has no statewide standards whatsoever) gets a failing mark in that category while a dozen jurisdictions receive A’s. Forty percent of a state’s grade is based on its standards, principally their “clarity and specificity.” The latter judgment, however, comes not from a review by subject-matter experts, but from a periodic appraisal by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the smaller national teachers’ union.

You begin to see why two such studies can yield different grades–though not everywhere. (Like Fordham, “Quality Counts” gives Massachusetts and Indiana high marks in this area.) Fordham’s content focus is key. For example, lead math reviewer David Klein (professor of mathematics at CalState/Northridge) and his team weighed a state’s success in “asking K-12 students to learn the correct skills, in the best order and at the proper speed”–and often found gaps in basic arithmetic as well as algebra and geometry. English reviewer Sandra Stotsky (Northeastern University) gauged state standards against 34 criteria (e.g. do they “clearly address oral and written language conventions” such as spelling and punctuation? Do they “include progressive development of reading skills and vocabularies?) She found welcome gains over the past five years in primary reading but woeful inattention to literature at the high-school level.

“Quality Counts” relied instead on the AFT’s judgments. When we looked into how the union judges standards, we found modest overlap with the Fordham approach, but also vast nebulousness. In English, for example, the AFT’s content criterion is just 62 words long and never mentions literature. Compare Stotsky’s seven detailed criteria for “disciplinary coverage” alone. The AFT, moreover, gives much weight to clarity, while Fordham has found that crystal clear standards can also be quite wrong.

In Ohio, which got an “A” from “Quality Counts” for its “clear and specific” standards while receiving a “C” from Fordham in English and a “D” in math, our reviewers said this:

English: “Many of the standards for literary study are vague and pretentious…or suggest that the English class may be turned into a pseudo-social studies class…. The most serious omission is…key authors, works, literary periods, and literary traditions…that outline the essential content of the secondary school English curriculum.”

Math: “There are serious deficiencies in these standards, including coverage of arithmetic and the algebra indicators…. There is too much emphasis on the study of patterns as an end in itself…. Statistics and probability are grossly overemphasized…. None of the grade-level indicators require students to learn the standard algorithms of arithmetic.”

So what? In an era when “standards-based reform” is the main driver of education improvement across the land and NCLB demands that states base their tests and accountability systems on standards in core subjects (reading and math now, joined in 2007 by science), the quality of those standards is key. If a state sets forth sound learning goals, its schools will have the guidance they need for teaching; test-makers will know what knowledge and skills to assess; ed schools will (one hopes) see what future teachers must learn; textbook publishers can see what their tomes should address. And on and on.

The Bush administration wants to extent NCLB-style testing (now in grades 3-8) to the high-school years and to press states and districts to hold their high schools accountable for student results. This further ups the ante for state standards, which are the template for all those tests and accountability schemes.

Education has many more elements, to be sure. Instructors must know their stuff, children must study and do their homework, parents must pay attention, principals must hold teachers responsible for covering the full curriculum, not just their pet topics, etc. But standards are where it begins. According to Fordham’s reviewers, few states today have standards in the core subjects of English and math that are up to the NCLB challenge, much less the added high-school burden that President Bush seeks to place upon them. “Quality Counts” paints a rosier picture–but one that rests on weaker evidence.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.



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