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Education reform in the United States since the late 1980s has been largely driven by the setting of academic standards for what students should learn and be able to do. These standards can then be used to guide all other system components. The standards-based reform movement calls for clear, measurable standards for all school students. Expectations are raised for all student's performance. Rather than norm-referenced rankings, the performance of all students is expected to be raised. Curriculum, assessments, and professional development are aligned to the standards.

Standards-based school reform has become a predominant issue facing public schools. By the 1996 National Education Summit, 44 governors and 50 corporate CEOs set the priorities (Achieve, 1998) [1]

  • High academic standards and expectations for all students.
  • Tests that are more rigorous and more challenging, to measure whether students are meeting those standards.
  • Accountability systems that provide incentives and rewards for educators, students, and parents to work together to help students reach these standards.

By 1998, almost every state had implemented, or was in the early stages of implementing, academic standards for their students in math and reading. Principals and teachers have received bonuses or been fired, students have been promoted or retained in their current grade, and legislation has been passed so that high school students will graduate or be denied a diploma based on test results

Outcomes based education

Standards are an evolution of the earlier Outcomes-based education which was largely rejected in the United States as unworkable in the 1990s, and is still being implemented by some and abandoned by other governments in Australia by the 2000s. In comparison with the original model of OBE, which has met with large scale failures as it attempted to completely change the structure of education, grading and instruction, Standards have been limited to the creation of curriculum frameworks, reform of individual curriculum areas such as reform mathmatics and inquiry based science, criterion-referenced assessments which are aligned to the frameworks, and imposition of graduation examinations requiring a high standard of performance to receive a diploma.

The standards movement can be traced to the efforts of Marc Tucker's NCEE which adapted aspects of William Spady's OBE movement into a system based on creating standards and assessments for a Certificate of Initial Mastery. This credential has since been abandoned by every state which first adopted the concept, including Washington and Oregon and largely replaced by graduation examinations. His organization had contracts with states and districts covering as many as half of all American school children by their own claims, and many states enacted education reform legislation in the early 1990s based on this model, which was also known at the time as "performance-based education" as OBE had been too widely attacked to be saleable. Though the standards movement has a stronger backing from conservatives than OBE by adopting a platform of raising higher academic standards, other conservatives believe that it is merely a re-labeling of a failed, unrealistic vision. It is believed to be the educational equivalent of a planned economy which attempts to require all children to perform at world class levels merely by raising expectations and imposing punishments and sanctions on schools and children who fall short of the new standards.


The National Science Education Standards is based heavily on beliefs of Outcomes-based education and Constructivism (learning theory). Like standards-based mathematics, which is distinguished by a lack of instruction of standard methods, the Standards also seek to redefine the very meaning and spirit of science instruction, rather than merely codifying traditional standards of instruction. Many of the key phrases are common in language to other standards such as the NCTM mathematics standards:

  • They outline what students need to know, understand, and be able to do (a phrase used only in conjunction with standards)
  • Students will be literate at different grade levels.
  • All students demonstrate high levels of performance (high performance comes from TQM)
  • Teachers are empowered to make the decisions essential for effective learning (rather than teaching)
  • Communities of teachers and students are focused on learning science (learning communities is characteristic of OBE reform)
  • Educational programs and systems nurture achievement.
  • The Standards point toward a future that is challenging but attainable--which is why they are written in the present tense. (although standards are written in present tense, it is fully expected that many or most students do not presently meet these standards)
  • In a single phrase: Science standards for all students. (no students will be exempt from high performance)
  • Embodies both 'excellence and equity. (Equity of special groups is characteristic of standards)
  • The Standards apply to all students, regardless of age, gender, cultural or ethnic background, disabilities, aspirations, or interest and motivation in science. (More equity, or performance quotas, for all groups)
  • Different students will achieve understanding in different ways. (Old standards do not apply)
  • Different students will achieve different degrees of depth and breadth of understanding depending on interest, ability, and context. (but it will always be one, high standard)
  • All students can develop the knowledge and skills described in the Standards, even as some students go well beyond these levels.
  • Will require major changes in much of this country's science education. (requires complete restructuring and redesign and re-education of teachers, parents and students)
  • Rests on the belief that science is an active process. Learning science is something that students do, not something that is done to them. (active learning vs teaching)
  • "Hands-on" activities, while essential, are not enough. Students must have "minds-on" experiences as well."
  • High expectations of science learning are set for all students
  • All students can increase their knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of science. (Continuous improvement)
  • Teaching for depth of understanding of important science concepts is preferred, rather than recall of science facts. (No, or reduced rote learning in exchange for process skills independent of facts or content, being able to do anything while knowing little)
  • Science literacy includes inquiry, history and nature of science, personal and social perspectives of science, science, and technology, in addition to the science domains of life science, physical science, and earth and space science. (topics which might not normally be considered to be science content)
  • Learning is an active process.
  • The program should be developmentally appropriate, interesting, and relevant to students’ lives.[2]


Some of the common components of standards-based education reform are:

  • Certificate of Initial Mastery Certifies student has meet the standards at age 16. Since abandoned by all states which initially proposed it.
  • High school graduation examination High stakes testing denies diplomas to students who do not meet high standards. Examples are WASL, MCAS. Affects over half of public school students, but by 2006, were not being adopted by more states, and subject to intense criticism by many citizens and organizations over validity, fairness, and errors.
  • Criterion-referenced tests based on fixed standards set by committees rather than norm-based rankings which are designed to fail the majority of students when first given, but pass the great majority after systems are put in place.
  • Inquiry based science. Science is based on experiments and constructed, rather than fixed content read from books.
  • NCTM standards mathematics reform which emphasizes deep understanding for all students rather than abstract academic mathematics. By 2006, states such as California and many districts had discarded this methodology in favor of rigorous traditional mathematics as is taught in most other nations such as Singapore and Japan.
  • School to work tying academics to career, now considerably scaled down from 1990s plans.
  • Goals 2000 set world-class standards in the 1990s, now defuct.
  • No Child Left Behind mandates continuous improvement in student and school level achievement across all student populations, but subject to intense criticism as unrealistic.
  • Require raising standards, rather than merely enforcing traditional levels of expectation.
  • Require a narrowing of academic gaps between groups such as races, income, or gender.


  • [1] Washington State Essential Academic Learning Requirements
  • [2] North Carolina Standard Course of Study
  • [3] Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks
  • Highland Tech High School is a completely standards based school in Anchorage, AK


Some aspects of standards-based reform have come under scrutiny. Some education researchers such as Harvard's Gary Orfield disagree that all students must pass a rigorous test just to get a high school diploma. Others such as Mathematically Correct have questioned the NCTM standards approach to teaching mathematics. Some state standards have themselves been criticized for either not being specific as to academic content, or not implementing curricula which follow the new standards. Advocates of traditional education believe it is not realistic to expect all students to perform at the same level as the best students, nor to punish students simply because they don't perform as well as the most academically talented.

See also

  • Outcome-based education Former name of standards-based education reform in the United States in the 1980s, but currently used worldwide in nations such as Australia. Also known as performance-based education reform in early 1990s.
  • [4] Re-Inventing Schools Coalition


  • [5] AFT Hot Topics: Standards Based Reform

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. Standards-Based Reform
  2. [6] The Influence of the National Science Education Standards on the Science Curriculum James D. Ellis University of Kansas