Photograph by Chris Campbell

Standard & Poor

Accountability in education is here to stay—but you try creating tests that equally suit Texans and Hawaiians.

Most days I love my job. For two and a half years, I’ve worked in education publishing, first as a textbook proofreader, now as an editor and writer. Creating the materials students will use across the country to develop their skills in English is pretty awesome. I come from a family full of teachers, and probably would have become one myself were it not for a lifelong fear of teenagers. On the days I don’t really love my job, though, there’s one culprit: lousy state educational standards.

If you don’t have children in public school, or if you haven’t been in public school yourself in more than a decade, you may not know about “standards” in the official educational sense. Essentially, they’re a set of guidelines drafted by bureaucrats, think tanks, and teachers, supposedly to help streamline the process for students to prepare for standardized tests. All states have their own standards, which they’ve drafted under different circumstances, by different bureaucrats, think tanks, and teachers.

As an editor and writer of textbooks, I’m affected because many of the larger states (e.g., California, Texas, Florida, New York) only purchase materials if their state standards are explicitly addressed and incorporated. As a result, education publishing companies are beholden to the big boys, and compete for their business by writing textbooks specifically suited to their needs.

Now, generally, the big states’ standards are similar and, more importantly, sensible. In English language arts, they ask students to identify the characteristics of poetry, for instance, or to identify cause-and-effect relationships in works of fiction, or to demonstrate basic capabilities in reading comprehension. Easy enough. But sometimes, due to some states’ poor standards quality, my job is very difficult. Like, extremely, frustratingly difficult. Like, throw-my-hands-up and get-up-for-a-walk-it-off-trip-to-the-water-cooler difficult. Sometimes a group of us editors—fairly well-educated adults, mind you—will convene around each others’ desks just trying to make sense of what we’re reading.

For standards to be useful to educators and people like me they must be clear, concise, and not only teachable, but testable. Many standards that I am currently forced to incorporate in my work are none of the above.

Remember when President George W. Bush asked, “Is our children learning?” That was a bad question. Mainly because I wish he’d said, “What is our children learning?”


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Almost all available data show standards-based education raises student performance. If you teach students according to standards, they perform better on standardized tests. Some argue that’s a rather self-fulfilling prophecy, but it works on paper. The magic word behind the need for standards (as opposed to the want to use them to raise student scores) is “accountability.”

My brother, Trevor, a Masters student in education, ominously puts it this way: The Rise of Accountability has taken over American education. Accountability means that if we’re spending tax dollars, we need to be sure what we’re doing is working, and to create an educational environment that can be measured by statistical analysis.

Teachers occasionally encourage poor-performing students to leave public school altogether.As Trevor says, “Accountability sucks, because it pushes everyone to the center of the curve. But you gotta have it.” Employing nationwide standards, and the tests that go with them, is practically the only way we’ve come up with to ensure accountability.

Most states had picked up on the standards trend during the past few decades, reworking their public schools. Then, in 2001, President Bush signed the bi-partisan-supported No Child Left Behind (or N.C.L.B.) Act into law. The act stipulated that a lot of federal money (about $17 billion at the time; increased in 2007 to more than $24 billion) would be distributed to state schools provided that those schools (a) implemented standards-based education and (b) raised reading and math performance on standardized tests incrementally, year by year (which, in the language of the act, is known as proving “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP). States could pick their own standards, which made them happy as they sniffed their new moneybags. However, schools that failed to meet AYP would be put on a watch list. And if they couldn’t get off that list in less than five years, the school would face restructuring, which could mean faculty firings or student transfers. All in the name of accountability.

Nearly 10 years later, the most serious complaints about N.C.L.B. converge around two issues. The first is that, in order to meet adequate yearly progress, many state school systems gradually lowered their standards. This made it easier for schools to get passing grades, but it did nothing to ensure that students could compete at a national level, or later at college, or in their careers. This is the “race to the bottom” that so many educators and legislators have identified.

The second problem with N.C.L.B. is that, even with some schools trying to “juke the stats,” in the parlance of The Wire, about a third of America’s public schools still failed to meet AYP in the 2008-09 school year. That number is rising. The law is simply not producing its desired results.

Without further details, it remains to be seen whether President Obama’s blueprint to reform education will fix the increase in so-called failing schools. However, a couple of weeks ago, I read of a current effort to create a national set of testing standards for English and math curricula. The Common Core State Standards Initiative—led by a panel compiled from the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—intends to correct the inequalities found in existing state standards, which, as a skeptical textbook editor with muted rage issues, I think is fantastic.


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Some state standards are crap. Here are examples: From Texas, we find the following standards in Grade 4 of the Texas Essential Knowledge Skills. One is that students must “seek clarification of spoken language as needed.” This is difficult to teach because you’re relying on students to ask for clarification—but just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean they don’t need it. And whether or not it’s teachable, it’s certainly not testable; students are never allowed to ask for clarification in a standardized testing environment.

Another Texas standard says students must “understand the general meaning of spoken language ranging from situations in which contexts are familiar to unfamiliar.” This standard is vague in its wording, and includes a false range (in this case, “familiar to unfamiliar”) that is exceedingly difficult to determine at any given point in time—as in, say, a test setting. Finally, we find that students should “use accessible language and learn new and essential language in the process.” Nowhere do they bother to define what they think accessible language is, and I’m left to assume essential language is something like, “Can I use the bathroom now?”

I’ve spent whole afternoons slamming my head on my desk while writing practice tests.Whatever the meaning of the terms to define these standards, it’s hard to prove by testing that students are meeting them. Texas isn’t the only state guilty of gobbledygook. South Carolina third graders are expected to “read independently for extended periods of time for pleasure.” How do they teach this? How do you test it?

The Grade 8 New York English Language Arts Core Curriculum standards for listening comprehension skills insist that students must “respect the age, gender, social position, and cultural traditions of the speaker,” “withhold judgment,” and “appreciate the speaker’s uniqueness.” I’ve spent whole afternoons slamming my head on my desk writing practice tests, trying to come up with questions to address these requirements. I see wording like this in my nightmares. While these standards signal valuable, if not lofty, intentions for teenagers, they are almost impossible to assess in a standardized testing environment. Being asked to develop preparatory tests that align with these well-meaning, untestable standards is the hardest part of my job. Actually testing students on these dubious standards does them no great service, either.

My friend Sarah, a New York City public high school teacher, told me, “New York state standards are pretty much meaningless.” She feels standards should play a part in public education, and they need revising—but the bigger problem is when AYP-failing schools (often in poor, urban areas) are punished for not meeting existing benchmarks. Teachers occasionally encourage poor-performing students to leave public school altogether, Sarah says, so as not to negatively influence the school’s score.

She also cites a taxing mix of unhelpful parents, rigid teachers who refuse to comply with new legislation, and the fact that schools in poor districts are being forced to accommodate unique social issues—like children who can’t afford lunch, or don’t have homes to return to after school—as evidence that whatever happens with standards, revising them is not going to do the job alone of improving our national educational standards—not the official “standards,” but the standard we should expect of a great country.

But one thing at a time.

Some states have expressed trepidation over the adoption of national standards. Their fears are not without merit. As Jim Stergios of a Boston non-profit involved in revising Massachusetts state standards said, “Ours in Massachusetts are much higher, so why should we adopt [national standards]?” Texas and Alaska have opted out of the national standard adoption process altogether, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry arguing that Texans should decide what Texans learn.

The stand that this is a states’ rights issue is, in the case of Texas in particular, disingenuous. As one of the largest states, with one of the biggest public school systems, the standards set for Texas schools have a way of drawing attention (and human capital) from major publishers in a way few other states can. In fact, many publishers remain in business by aligning their core educational curricula to Texas standards and selling virtually identical textbooks nationally—an issue that caught attention recently due to the intense debate over Texas’s social studies and history standards.

If national standards pass for English and math, other subjects could follow, including science, social studies, and history. The big states that have previously managed to direct the course of education publishing with their market share may no longer retain that power. The effect would be that smaller states wouldn’t have to put up with any particular state’s flights of fancy, political or otherwise, and editors like me won’t spend hours trying to shoehorn smaller states’ round-peg standards into bigger states’ square holes.


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My stepfather Blair became a teacher in 1974, and has taught everything from kindergarten to university-level humanities and music theory courses. He uses the analogy of comparing apples and oranges when different state’s standards are juxtaposed. He is very concerned about the move in our country toward “high-stakes testing,” as he puts it, because he fears what education can provide and accomplish for students is narrowing.

An accountability- and standards-based form of education isn’t going away—but the current system is unworkable and needs revising.He also worries about efforts currently under way in many states to force a standardized testing mold onto other subjects, like music or art, that simply won’t fit, devaluing music and art teachers professionally. However, Blair points out that since proficiency in many subjects can be tested, these subjects should share standards at a national level so that all students are considered equally. This would ensure some assumptions could be made about what each student knows when entering a new grade, or a new school district. As he eloquently puts it, “Knowledge is not a local issue.”

For anyone who wants to contribute to the adoption process, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is open to public comment until Friday, April 2. Obama’s administration endorses the national-standards effort, and it’s a foregone conclusion that these new standards will be part of the coming overhaul of No Child Left Behind.

Which is a good thing. An accountability- and standards-based form of education isn’t going away—but the current system is unworkable and needs revising. Having a national set of standards may not fix many of our system’s problems, but it could provide a relatively simple tweak that sets the playing field a little more evenly for students in public schools.

It will also, I hope, make my job a little easier.


TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan