Center for American Progress

The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity

The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity

Standards-Based Framework in a Decentralized System

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In a relatively short time, the standards-based framework for elementary and secondary education systems has been fully adopted in the United States. In 1983, the report A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform challenged the country to significantly raise its educational expectations for all students. More formal proposals for adoption of standards came in 1989 with support from then-President George H. W. Bush and the nation’s governors. A few years later, in 1994, Congress passed legislation (Goals 2000 legislation and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) establishing the standards-based framework as the condition for receipt of federal funds and requiring states to adopt curriculum standards and accountability systems. States, however, implemented the basic principles of these laws unevenly.

In 2001, the standards movement advanced with passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. NCLB built upon and made significant changes to the 1994 laws, placing greater emphasis on accountability for student learning and specifying the authorization of federal dollars through fiscal year 2007. Today, all states have developed both curriculum and student performance standards and hold their districts and schools accountable for meeting yearly student achievement goals that grow tougher each year.

But what can be considered a step forward in many respects, is also an impediment—a false sense of student performance. With more than 50 different sets of standards, there is no national measure/yardstick/standard/benchmark for academic achievement at each of the grade levels. NCLB requires that states hold districts and schools accountable for getting all their students to “proficient” achievement levels, but allows them to adopt their own definitions of “proficiency.” With the pressure to increase student performance, as illustrated below, there has been counter pressure for states to game the system by lowering both standards and proficiency definitions. Such action can lead, perversely, to weakening curriculum and lowering, not raising expectations. Only national curriculum standards and national definitions and measures of student performance at proficiency levels can prevent this behavior.

National cries for increased expectations and evidence of higher student achievement are more than 30 years old. But the decentralized system of schooling continues mostly unchanged. Students continue to move through the nation’s schools gaining widely varying levels—mostly low—of knowledge, skills and preparedness. Evidence of this abounds.

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Cynthia G. Brown

Former Senior Fellow