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In response to a series of reports focused on American students’ mediocre performance on national and international tests, former President George Bush and the nation’s governors jointly convened the first National Education Summit in 1989 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The summit led to the establishment of six long-term goals for public education and spawned a host of national commissions, task forces and study groups.

In 1992, one of these groups, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, issued a report calling for the development of national standards in each of the major subject areas, embodying "demanding but attainable learning goals" for the widest possible range of students. The nation’s goal, it said, should be to "raise the ceiling for students who are currently above average, and to lift the floor for those who now experience the least success in school," thus equipping an increasingly diverse and mobile population "with shared values and knowledge and the ability to compete in a fast-changing global economy."

National surveys and polls showed the public strongly supported the idea of standards. Business and industry leaders rallied behind standards-based reform, likening it to the strategies used during the late 1970s to restructure American businesses and improve productivity. At the same time, a growing number of education researchers and reformers were finding that successful schools tended to be those that focused on clear goals and had redesigned the teaching and learning process around those goals.

Today, nearly every state has established standards in at least some subjects, and 44 states have completed standards in English, mathematics, social studies and science. Most states appear to view their standards as a work in progress. Over the past two years, 38 states have developed new or revised standards, or created additional documents clarifying the standards.

But standards, by themselves, will not yield gains in student achievement or any of the other improvements states are relying on them to produce. Standards are only one piece in a puzzle that also encompasses assessment, curriculum, accountability, teacher education and professional development, and intervention and support for struggling students and schools.

What little research has been done on the effectiveness of standards tends to support this argument. States that have shown improved student achievement – notably North Carolina, Texas, Maryland, Connecticut and Kentucky – are for the most part states that also have shown sustained commitment to aligning other components of their education system with standards.

But progress on this front – alignment – has been slow and uneven, and in some states, the early stages of implementing standards have been marked by controversy and even organized opposition. This has been particularly true in states with new “high-stakes” testing programs, which tie students’ eligibility for promotion and/or graduation to their performance on statewide achievement tests.

Discussion and debate also have centered on the quality of the standards that states have established. Are they clear enough? Are they rigorous enough? Do they provide a solid foundation for the other reforms being built upon them?

Over the past several years, a number of organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, have begun issuing annual evaluations of the quality of states’ standards and assessments. Additionally, there are growing sources of information and assistance to help states continuously evaluate and improve their standards.

A number of critical questions about standards remain unanswered. For example:

  • How effective are content standards without being backed up with performance standards or proficiency levels?

  • Are student failure rates decreasing over time? What are the effects of different approaches to standards (for example, more prescriptive as opposed to less prescriptive) on student failure rates? What supports are needed to reduce student failure rates?

  • What are the consequences of setting high standards all at once as opposed to raising the bar incrementally?

  • What are the consequences of mismatches in standards, assessment and accountability systems – for example, when states erect high-stakes accountability systems atop weak standards or establish good standards but no real accountability for attaining them?

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