Policy

An Eye-Opening Look At America's Academic Standards

Students in South Carolina probably know how this statesman and former president fits in to American history. i i

Students in South Carolina probably know how this statesman and former president fits in to American history. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Students in South Carolina probably know how this statesman and former president fits in to American history.

Students in South Carolina probably know how this statesman and former president fits in to American history.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In my blog post last week, I considered our "Sputnik moment" with respect to U.S. science education. In the rich comment thread that followed, many of you voiced cogent opinions and concerns about our educational system writ large.

A feature of this system that I only recently came to understand is that the material covered in our K-12 public-school classrooms is determined by the states. Each state assembles committees that write a collection of documents, called "Standards," that spell out what should be presented at each grade level for each academic field. These standards then serve as the basis for assessing student competence levels in state-administered tests, and they are periodically revised.

My initial encounter with state standards came in 2005 when I was asked by the Fordham Institute to join a team of scientists in evaluating all 50 of the state science standards.

It was brutal. Each standard was presented in a totally different format, often broken up into numerous pdf's. Each had widely different ideas about what topics to cover and how to cover and present them. I thought it would never end.

The resultant report gave letter grades, from A to F, to each state, along with 50 detailed commentaries on the strengths and weaknesses we encountered. While I was proud of our achievement, and learned a lot, I hoped I'd never see a science standard again.

But this summer Fordham asked me to do it again, and I found myself agreeing to do so since it seemed pretty important. So I'm now about 20 states into the second round. The good news is that some states seem to have taken the critique seriously and have come up with far better products. The bad news is that it's just as brutal a process as it was the last time.

Yesterday morning I learned that Fordham has just published the results of a second state standards evaluation, this one considering standards in U.S. history. And it's mind-blowing.

In our 2005 science report we gave 7 A's, 12 B's, 9 C's, 7 D's, and 15 F's, which was pretty discouraging. But the history grades are even worse. Here's some text from the executive summary:

  • A majority of states' standards are mediocre-to-awful. The average grade across all states is barely a D. In twenty-eight jurisdictions — a majority of states — the history standards earn Ds or below. Eighteen earn Fs.
  • Just one state — South Carolina — has standards strong enough to earn a straight A.
  • Six other states — Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia — earn A-minuses, and three more received grades in the B range. Still, this means just ten states — or about one in five — get honors marks.

So, you might want to click on the two links above and find out how your state scored in history and, 6 years ago, in science. You might then elect to Google-search your state's standards and read for yourself what these documents entail.

And then the questions.

  • What is the relationship, if any, between these standards and what students actually learn? Do mediocre standards relate to mediocre national test scores?
  • Should there be national standards, or is there merit in the state-by-state system?
  • For those of you in public-school teaching, are the standards followed? Helpful? Impediments?
  • For those of you who are public-school parents, have you ever read these things?

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