AFT Criteria for Strong Academic Standards
1. Standards must define the common content and skills students should learn in each of the core subjects for every grade.
No matter how clear standards may be, if they do not spell out the various grades at which students are expected to master specific material, they are not very useful. A document that merely states what is to be accomplished by the end of schooling is not sufficient.
Documents that simply repeat the same standard from grade to grade are nearly as ineffective as those with no grade breakdowns at all because they do not indicate the development expected of students as they move through school. Standards that assert "student work will reflect a grade-appropriate level of quality and complexity" without defining "grade-appropriate" are inadequate. Experience tells us that teachers, parents, students and curriculum and assessment developers are likely to interpret "grade-appropriate" differently, and differing interpretations can jeopardize the implementation of a rigorous, common core curriculum.
2. Standards must be detailed, explicit, and firmly rooted in the content of the subject area.
Strong standards must provide clear guidance to teachers, curriculum and assessment developers, textbook publishers and others to ensure consistency in interpretation of the core knowledge and skills students should learn in a particular grade level. If the standards are unclear, the curriculum across schools and districts can vary widely, and the integrity of any assessments based on the standards may be compromised. Teachers, students, parents and others will be left to guess expectations for mastery; if they guess wrong, student achievement will suffer.
3. Each of the four core curriculum areas must include particular content.
Even if standards documents are clear and specific, they are insufficient if they do not include the following content in the four core subject areas:
English language arts standards must include:
The basic skills and knowledge that are the foundations of learning how to read (e.g., letter-sound recognition, decoding skills, vocabulary)
Reading comprehension (e.g., exposure to a variety of literary and informational text)
Writing conventions (e.g., spelling, writing mechanics)
Writing forms (e.g., narrative, persuasive, expository)
Speaking and Listening
Math standards must include number sense and operations, measurement, geometry, data analysis and probability and algebra.
Science standards must include earth, physical and life sciences.
Social study standards must contain references to U.S. history, world history and civics.
4. Standards must attend to both content and skills.
It is not enough for standards to emphasize the skills students should learn but then leave the content to local discretion. It is also not enough for standards to emphasize subject knowledge with no discussion of the skills needed to apply that knowledge. Standards must elaborate upon the specifics of what students should know.
Rather than a standard that simply names the "U.S. Revolutionary War" as being important, for example, the standard should specify details and give parameters about the knowledge that students should have about the war: Do students need to know the dates of the Revolutionary War, or should they be able to analyze its causes and effects? Without some guidance on what students should be able to do with the knowledge, the quality and complexity of the student work will differ substantially across the state.
5. Standards must be vertically aligned to show how learning builds from one grade to the next.
Strong standards clearly lay out the natural progression of content skills and knowledge students must master to move from topic to topic and grade to grade.
For each core academic subject, standards should require that elementary school students be exposed to a solid foundation of knowledge and skills to facilitate a more in-depth study of the subject when students reach upper grades. At each subsequent grade, the standards should progress from the content presented at the previous grade. This progression enables the development of the corresponding curricula, professional development, instructional resources and assessments from elementary through high school that depends on, and makes explicit, the prior knowledge and skills students need to achieve higher standards as they advance from grade to grade and topic to topic.
Now more than ever, standards must be clear about what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal government has required states to measure student progress toward the standards in grades 3 through 8 in reading and mathematics. This requirement has heightened the need for teachers and school staff to understand how students progress from grade to grade and topic.
6. Standards must include sample student work to exemplify the standards and help guide the development of curricula, professional development, instructional resources, and assessments.
In any profession, specific standards are developed to measure competence and performance, and these standards give people something specific to aim for. From medical boards that prospective doctors must pass to time trials that drivers must undergo to race in the Indianapolis 500, performance is not an abstract concept. Indy racers are not simply told that "very fast driving" will qualify them for the big race, for example. They know exactly what times they need to beat, and they plan their strategies accordingly. It should be the same for education standards.
A complete set of standards should include sample student work showing what type of work meets the standards and should also include commentary explaining why the work meets the standard.
7. Standards must include grade- and content-specific performance expectations that describe the knowledge and skills expected for each performance level (e.g., basic, proficient, advanced).
Multiple performance levels are helpful to students, parents and teachers who want to know—beyond "pass" or "fail"—how well students are doing in relation to the standards. Performance levels also help schools and districts target resources to those students in most need of support and to track their progress.
Standards must make clear to parents, teachers, students and others what the different performance levels mean. What should an "advanced" 10th-grade student's writing look like? How does that compare to writing that is "proficient" and "partially proficient"? What kinds of math problems should students who are considered "proficient" be able to solve in fourth grade? In eighth grade? In 12th grade?
Defining multiple levels of performance does not mean having low standards for some students and high standards for others. The goal is for all children to at least reach proficiency on the standards and for these expectations and performance levels to be clearly specified.