homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
the right stuff

Forty-nine states have established statewide curriculum, or content, standards in some form. But as educators and policy experts are discovering, just having standards isn't enough. It's the quality of the standards that counts. What does it take to get standards right? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with William Schmidt of Michigan State University, Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, Bob Schwartz of Achieve, and James Popham, professor emeritus at UCLA.

William schmidt
A professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University, he is the national research coordinator and executive director of the U.S. National Research Center, which oversees the United States' participation in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

photo of schmidt
read the interview

We read that 49 out of 50 states have standards, and that Iowa did them [at the local level]. You're saying that statement doesn't mean a whole lot?

Since we've been working on trying to develop a national vision of where to go in math and science, one of the things that I've learned is, as you talk to states, states have this notion that if they have standards, they're there. And that's not the issue. It's not whether they have them or not; it's what's in them. And that second question is a much more difficult one to deal with, and yet we find states somewhat unwilling to really confront that reality. What is the actual mathematics, what is the science that is in those standards? ...

Those standards can range all over the place, and when we look internationally and compare those standards, we find that ... they're not anywhere nearly as rigorous as what you'd find in other countries. ...

"Rigorous" and "demanding" are the adjectives you use. I have heard that American standards are too broad.

That's part of it. They're not very focused. There's two parts to that, actually, in my mind. One is we have so many standards at each grade level, compared to other countries. We're, for example, at eighth-grade telling teachers to teach 35 topics. Other countries are telling their teachers to teach 10 to 15. So there's one aspect of it. But secondly, the standards themselves are often times not very clear or focused, so that a teacher could say, "Of course, I cover that." And in some sense, they do. But they're over on this corner of it, versus the real depth of the standard, which is over here. ...

[Do] you think we should have one test -- a national test?

I believe we should have a national vision, a national set of standards. And if we ever did that, then of course it would make the absolute most sense to have a test which would measure those national standards. When you look across the rest of the world, that's one of their secrets. It's well defined, it's well articulated. Children, no matter where they live, all have the same expectations. It's not a matter of which part of the country you live in, or which side of the tracks you live on. It's there for everybody.

In this country, that's not true. And therefore we have such unevenness across the country, and across the proverbial tracks, that this creates huge differences in opportunities for students to learn. Then when we test, we get different results, and then we say "Aha!" But of course it's not "Aha!" It's like, what would you expect if you don't have a comparable curriculum for all kids? Likely, you will get large differences between different groups of children. ...

Is your overall sense that this is a good thing we're doing? Are we doing some damage to ourselves, because we're testing, high-stakes testing, and we say we have standards, when we don't?

Yes, I think there's a real danger in all of this. Because it just seems to me so often when we try to reform education, instead of really dealing and grappling with the real issues, we tend to go with the surface issues. So when you talk about standards, the issue is whether you have them or not. When you talk about testing, the issue is whether you have them or not, are you holding kids and teachers accountable or not. But those are the surface aspects of this.

The real issues have to do with what it is -- the substance, the discipline. What are we expecting children to learn at those grade levels? Is it the kind of things that give them a chance in life to compete internationally? And I'm not talking about just on a test. I mean for their jobs, for their futures. This is what's important. And this means we have to have a dialogue about what mathematics? What science? What literature? What history is important for kids to know at sixth, seventh, eighth grade? And then test those accordingly. We don't go there.

Because it's hard work?

That's right. ... But other countries do it. Why can't we do it? Other countries that have a lot of heterogeneity in their populations, other countries which grapple with local, regional sorts of issues of control. But they still do it, because it's important for the future of their students. We get hung up in the politics. And then we leave our kids out of the equation, and it's for them that we should be having this kind of serious dialogue. ...

Amy Wilkins
She is a principal partner at The Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization devoted to reform in K-12 education.

photo of wilkins
read the interview

So the first step is telling the teachers exactly what it is they're supposed to teach?

That's what standards provide; they provide clear expectations for everybody. They provide clear expectations for the kids: this is what you're supposed to learn. They provide clear expectations for the teachers: this is what you're supposed to teach. They provide clear expectations for the public: this is what our schools are doing with your tax dollars. So, yes, the first step is being public about what the expectations are.

Every state, basically, has said, "OK, we'll embrace standards." Are these standards good? How are we doing?

Oh, it's a mixed bag. Most states now have standards in reading, or language arts, and mathematics. And it's a very mixed bag. In some states, you have rigorous standards, and some states have standards that are embarrassingly low. ... The kids really can perform at much higher levels. I think the standards movement is really still in its infancy. Those of us who support standards need to be critical, and need to say, "It's not good enough. We can do better." It's true about the standards -- we need to be critical of the standards; we need to be critical of the assessments. We need to make this a rigorous system, so that all kids have the opportunity to achieve at very high levels. ...

But I think that one of the things we have to do in the standards movement is not throw the baby out with the bath water. ... I don't think the state should throw the standards away because [it] didn't get it right on the first try, they didn't set their standards high enough, or the standards were too detailed. I think we need to go back, and refine and improve the standards. But we shouldn't say, "Oh, this didn't work, and it's time to go on to the next educational fad."

So [the standards] need thinning?

Some standards need thinning; they need prioritizing. But we also need to help teachers bring the standards into the classroom. I think the real failure in lots of states is that ... in general, there were very open processes, with lots of people, mathematicians, parents, all sorts of people deciding what kids should know and be able to do. And they produced these very thick documents, and sort of threw them at teachers and said, "Here, do this," and didn't provide the teachers with the sort of support that they needed to change -- in very fundamental ways -- the way they taught. And so I think that as the standards movement matures, the next big important step that needs to happen is providing teachers with the support they need to get the kids to those standards. ...

Bob Schwartz
He is the president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization created by business leaders and the nation's governors to promote standards-based education reform.

photo of schwartz
read the interview

This is supposed to be a movement about ... "standards-based" reform, and in some places, unfortunately, it's becoming "test-based" reform, or "accountability-based" reform.

[We're] trying to help people get back to the centrality of the standards themselves, that is, asking some pretty tough questions: Do we have the standards right? Are they clear? Are they measurable? Are they reasonably economical? Are the standards focused only on what really are the most essential things that kids need to know? ...

We watched some people in Virginia working on standards, actually rewriting the history standards, and arguing, "Well, do we need Frederick Douglass to Robert E. Lee?" And other people arguing, "Well, we didn't have to study the Armenian genocide," or "We need to study Mali." ... Is it always so ... incredibly complicated?

Yes, if you involve more than one or two people in doing it. By definition, it is contentious. And in my view, appropriately so, particularly when you get into these contested areas like history. As we're finding out, even mathematics -- which some of us thought would be relatively easy -- [has] turned out to be not so easy. I view that as healthy, with one big caveat. And that is that somebody in the standards process, at the state level, needs to impose some really tight constraints on the amount of time that any particular piece, a subject area, can occupy in a curriculum.

What I'm driving at is that, all too often, what happens in these debates is they get resolved by including both your pet ideas and my pet ideas. ... [They] solve the argument by adding everything. And you then have standards documents that begin to look rather like our textbooks. They're fat. They're voluminous. They include everybody's pet ideas, and they encourage teachers to kind of skim superficially over [material]. The name of the game becomes coverage, not focusing on a few things and really going at them in some depth. ...

We saw one teacher in Virginia talk about how he was racing to get through everything. And he likened it to cramming food down someone's mouth: No matter how good the food is, they're not going to enjoy it.

This is where some of the more thoughtful critics of the standards movement, I think, have a really important point to make. ... In some ways, the most important criterion [to consider when creating standards] is being able to answer the question, Are these concepts really the most essential concepts, ideas, pieces of knowledge that kids really need? And as I said, in a lot of standard-setting processes, people have not been disciplined enough to say, "We really are going to pare down and pare down and pare down and really try to focus on what's most essential." ...

So you get a laundry list. ...

Who gets hurt if you end up with a laundry list?

... If the standards documents aren't useful for teachers in guiding curricular choices, in guiding instructional strategies, and useful to system people in guiding professional development programs for teachers, then the tests become in effect the de facto standards. And particularly, if you start attaching consequences to the test, people will say, "Look, I can't get through these standards documents. They're too voluminous. ... They may be nice statements of what we want kids to know and be able to do, but ... what do I do tomorrow in my classroom?" ...

A big missing piece is curriculum. One of the theories here was that the states would set the standards, would define the goals here, and would set the mechanism for measurement. But they would then leave it to districts and schools to figure out, "OK, what do we do day by day, week by week?" ... And in some districts, which have ... a long tradition of building their own curriculum, that strategy has worked fine.

But we've got 15,000 school districts in the country; a lot of them small, relatively isolated, without much of a tradition of curriculum building other than simply making choices about texts. And to me, one of the most interesting things that's happening in this movement is the increasing cry from teachers, including from the teacher organizations, for more help on the curriculum side. ...

James Popham
He is a professor emeritus at UCLA and a nationally recognized authority on standardized testing.

photo of popham
read the interview

You've got 49 states that have adopted academic standards, and many of them in core subjects. I'm wondering how helpful are these standards in terms of directing test writers, helping them know what kinds of questions to ask?

Content standards describe the knowledge and the skills you want kids to learn. And that's very sensible, to lay out in advance what it is you want children to learn. Unfortunately, the standards movement in this country is not working as well as it should, because the people who put together the content standards are usually curriculum specialists who want children to learn all sorts of great things. And so the content standards become wishlists of the many things that you would like children to master. So when you present the content standards to teachers in that state, there's way too much to cover, there's way too much to test. And, as a consequence, the standards movement is not having [the] positive impact we hoped it would.

On the other hand, you have standards that are incredibly vague. I read one, "Students will understand historical events in the 20th century." What do you do with that one?

There are many standards that are far more vague than they ought to be. My favorite was that "the student will relish literature." ... But those are of no utility to educators; they have no utility to item writers. They are simply pie-in-the-sky kinds of aspirations. And so, although it is helpful to identify in advance what you want children to be able to do after instruction is over, if you describe this with a litany of vague, ambiguous statements, you haven't benefited anyone. So in some states, the standards movement is more pretense than reality.

But if the standards were very detailed, I would think that might help the test writers. They would know exactly what they could be asking about. Is that possible, or am I wrong there?

The virtue of detail is that it would help item writers and it would help teachers, because they would have a more specific notion about what is to be accomplished. The downside of that kind of specificity is that it usually ends up with so many instructional targets the teachers have to cover, they're simply overwhelmed, as are the test writers. So the trick is to isolate a small number of really high-powered standards, standards that embrace lesser sub-skills and focus your instructional energy on that modest number. In general, the content standards we see in states across the land have not been isolated in that fashion. ...

How do you suggest they go about writing standards? How do you do it differently?

If I were standards czar, here's exactly what I'd do. I'd go to a specialist and I'd say, "Isolate the things that you want children to be able to do and put them in three piles: the absolutely essential, the highly desirable, and the desirable." And having done that, then I get those two piles away and just go with the absolutely essential. And then I would say, "Now rank them from top to bottom; the most important, the next most important," and so on.

And then I would have the assessment people come in and say, "These four can be assessed in the time we have available, and can be assessed in such a way that teachers will know how to promote children's mastery of them." And then we'd have a reasonable standards-based assessment system.

You might have to bring in some outsiders; business people or lawyers, doctors, people in the community.

It's perfectly reasonable to involve people other than educators in the isolation of what ought to be taught in our schools. Citizens have a stake in this game, business people, moms and dads. I'd get everyone involved in the enterprise, just as long as they weren't cowed by the subject matter. I would not have it decided only by subject-matter specialists, but I would most assuredly rank in order of import what should be promoted, and then only assess that which can legitimately be assessed in the time available. ...

home · no child left behind · challenge of standards · testing. teaching. learning?
introduction · in your state · parents' guide · producer's chat · interviews
video excerpts · discussion · tapes & transcripts · press
credits · privacy policy · FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

some photographs ©2002 getty images all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation