ESSA mandates that states must develop academic content standards that specify what students are expected to know or be able to do at each grade level.
An example, a broad standard in reading is:
“Students should be able to construct meaning through experiences with literature, cultural events and philosophical discussion” (no grade level indicated). (American Federation of Teachers, 2006, p. 6).
Standards that are too narrow can result in a restricted curriculum. An example of a narrow standard might be:
Students can define, compare and contrast, and provide a variety of examples of synonyms and antonyms.
A stronger standard is:
“Students should apply knowledge of word origins, derivations, synonyms, antonyms, and idioms to determine the meaning of words (grade 4) (American Federation of Teachers, 2006, p. 6).
The American Federation of Teachers conducted a study in 2005-6 and reported that some of the standards in reading, math and science were weak in 32 states. States set the strongest standards in science followed by mathematics. Standards in reading were particularly problematic and with one-fifth of all reading standards redundant across the grade levels, i.e. word-by-word repetition across grade levels at least 50 per cent of the time (American Federation of Teachers, 2006).
Even if the standards are strong, there are often so many of them that it is hard for teachers to address them all in a school year. Content standards are developed by curriculum specialists who believe in the importance of their subject area so they tend to develop large numbers of standards for each subject area and grade level.
At first glance, it may appear that there are only several broad standards, but under each standard there are subcategories called goals, benchmarks, indicators or objectives (Popham, 2004). For example, Idaho’s first grade mathematics standard, judged to be of high quality (AFT 2000) contains five broad standards, including 10 goals and a total of 29 objectives (Idaho Department of Education, 2005-6).
Alignment of standards, testing and classroom curriculum
The state tests must be aligned with strong content standards in order to provide useful feedback about student learning. If there is a mismatch between the academic content standards and the content that is assessed, then the test results cannot provide information about students’ proficiency on the academic standards.
When numerous standards have been developed it is impossible for tests to assess all of the standards every year, so the tests sample the content, i.e. Measure some, but not all the standards every year. Content standards cannot be reliably assessed with only one or two items so the decision to assess one content standard often requires not assessing another. This means if there are too many content standards a significant proportion of them are not measured each year.
In this situation, teachers try to guess which content standards will be assessed that year and align their teaching on those specific standards. Of course, if these guesses are incorrect students will have studied content, not on the test and not studied content that is on the test. Some argue that this is a very serious problem with current state testing and Popham (2004) an expert on testing even said: “What a muddleheaded way to run a testing program.” (p. 79)
A national survey of over 4,000 teachers indicated that the majority of teachers reported that the state mandated tests were compatible with their daily instruction and were based on curriculum frameworks that all teachers should follow. The majority of teachers also reported teaching test taking skills and encouraging students to work hard and prepare. Elementary school teachers reported a greater impact of the high stakes tests: 56 per cent reported the tests influenced their teaching daily or a few times a week compared to 46 percent of middle school teachers and 28 per cent of high school teachers.
Even though the teachers had adapted their instruction because of the standardized tests they were skeptical about them with 40 per cent reporting that teachers had found ways to raise test scores without improving student learning and over 70 per cent reporting that the test scores were not an accurate measure of what minority students know and can do (Pedulla, Abrams, Madaus, Russell, Ramos, & Miao; 2003).