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“Teachers do not have a common understanding of what students should have learned in the previous grade, what they are expected to master in the current grade, or what they are preparing them to learn in the following grade.”

Though content standards for academic courses vary across states, something many of them have in common is that they are not specific enough, says the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Sizing Up Standards 2008.

Updated annually since 1995, the report examines the standards of each state and the District of Columbia that were posted on state department of education websites as of October 2007. It analyzes those standards for English, math, science, and social studies for the elementary, middle, and high school grades. To be considered “strong,” content standards had to be “detailed and explicit with little or no repetition, and rooted firmly enough in the content of the subject area to lead to a common, knowledge-rich curriculum.” They also had to cover particular content—in English, for example, such content included reading basics such as vocabulary, and writing forms such as narrative, persuasive, and expository. Finally, standards designated as “strong” had to focus on both content and skills, and be “articulated for every grade from K–8 and by grade or course at the high school level.” For a state to be considered strong at one of the three school levels, the state had to meet the criteria in more than half of the grades at a school level (e.g., two of the three middle grades), or, at the high school level, more than half of the standards or courses required for graduation.

The report finds that Virginia is the only state that was strong across all four subject areas and three school levels, although fifteen others were strong in at least three quarters of its standards, including California, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia, . (Notably, three of the fifteen stronger states, Arkansas, Indiana, and Louisiana, made significant improvements over the past few years even though AFT had increased the rigor of its criteria over past years.). Twenty-one states were considered strong in fewer than half of their standards, and a third of these—Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—were not judged to be strong in any of the AFT’s standards.

Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of AFT, was pleased to see that some states had improved their standards but acknowledged that there was still a long way to go.

“While some states are demonstrating dramatic improvement in the quality of their standards, far too many states are lagging behind,” she said. “Well-written grade-by-grade or course-by-course standards are critical because they drive curriculum, professional development, instruction and assessments, and provide guidance to textbook publishers.”

High school standards were found to be the weakest of all three school levels; only 53 percent of science standards, 47 percent of standards in math, 43 percent of social studies standards, and just 25 percent of all standards in English were considered “clear, specific, and content-rich.” Many of the weak standards, says the report, were so designated because they were “repeated, clustered, or had missing or vague content.”

“All three of these problems have the same, terrible consequences,” the report reads. “Teachers do not have a common understanding of what students should have learned in the previous grade, what they are expected to master in the current grade, or what they are preparing them to learn in the following grade.”

The report suggests that states with weak standards look to those with strong ones as examples of how to improve. It lists certain states with exemplary standards by subject and grade level. “States within a region could get together as a consortium to jointly develop standards, curricula and assessments,” Cortese said. “Either way, it’s time for states to get this right.”

The report calls for state standards to “describe what high school students should know and be able to do by course. The reality of high school is that students enroll in courses, not grade-specific subjects,” the report reads. “In other words, students are enrolling in U.S. History from 1877 and not in Social Studies 11. Standards should reflect the reality of how high schools function.” The report decries the clustering too often found in high school standards; one set of standards often applies to more than one grade (e.g., nine through twelve), making it hard to understand what students are supposed to learn over the years. The report also calls for graduation requirements to “complement” and “reflect” content standards.

Download the full report.

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