Trouble With Standards: Part 3

In a stack of papers called Legislation.

  • Jan
  • 22
  • 2007

Here’s the big one, the trouble with English standards, along with a couple of things to consider in making standards better. We need to improve the quality of public education, but we didn’t finish that fight by creating standards and more testing. Keep pushing things forward, please. Most content standards in my state were adopted in 1998. What about in your state? How old are your content standards? Should these standards ever be “old” in any sense of that word?

English Standards Too Vague

If I see that several of my students score low on STAR test questions that judge standards under the heading of Reading Comprehension, that doesn’t help me. There are many skills under that heading and it could be any one of those that my students didn’t do well on. Further, here’s an example of just one of the standards listed in that section:

Analyze both the features and the rhetorical devices of different types of public documents (e.g., policy statements, speeches, debates, platforms) and the way in which authors use those features and devices.

Is that a skill or merely a set of opinions? Further, how am I to qualify a student’s understanding of that level of discourse? Do we really believe there’s an exact process to follow to consistently reach a “correct” answer in this type of analysis? Is it just an awareness of these types of ideas we want to inculcate in students? If so, how can we test this, holding teachers and schools “accountable” for those results?

English is a subject where there are no cut-and-dry steps to follow in order to achieve a certain result. I cannot direct a student to follow a particular process in order to start thinking more profoundly, writing more maturely, reading more accurately. That singular process doesn’t exist.

The English standards are so vague and broad that they paint a nice picture, but are skills open to wide interpretation. Under response to literature, one standard is

analyze the use of imagery, language, universal themes, and unique aspects of the text.

That’s a standard that has as many correct answers as there are texts to respond to.

One of the great things about English is that there are several possible answers. It’s an art. Sorry, folks, but there’s not a reasonable way to teach kids to consistently

critique the power, validity, and truthfulness of arguments set forth in public documents.

Where one person sees a powerful, perfectly valid, and incredibly true document, another sees an absurdly weak, insanely written, and awfully bogus one. Want an example? Ask people about the Bible.


Sort out funding so environment doesn’t play a role in student performance.
Students sitting in a “ghetto” school commonly look down on their own abilities and don’t care to put out the effort needed to make the school look good as a result of a system that obviously doesn’t care for their comfort.
Create standards for teachers to follow and evaluate schools on that. Figure out a way to do it because that’s what determines a teacher’s effectiveness more than student skill demonstrated on a test.
Some students are naturally adept at tests, some come to the class with high intelligence, others show up not having paid attention since 3rd grade. Those students’ results on a test like STAR are not indicative of the teacher’s ability.
Treat standards (English standards, at least) as a bare minimum and as mere guidelines for what should happen in the classroom.
Schools should respond to community desires and should be preparing students for life, not just for college. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not a good enough reason to teach anything. If we treat standards as the final determiner of what should or should not be taught, we become automatons who are not doing our best to prepare our students for the world on the other side of the graduation stage.


1. Dan Meyer says:

[1/22/2007 - 11:20 pm]

“If we treat standards as the final determiner of what should or should not be taught, we become automatons who are not doing our best to prepare our students for the world on the other side of the graduation stage.”

Insert perfunctory comments here about how schools are in the business of educating students, not socializing them.

I’m pretty game with the rest of this. Good write-up.

2. Todd says:

[1/23/2007 - 1:44 am]

Yeah, it’s odd for folks to feel as if all we do is teach in a vacuum and in a box, nothing social. Can we ever have a document that covers everything we should teach? I think that document would be so lengthy that it would be useless. Plus, I’m not sure I want that much definition. Because we deal with human beings, we have to be flexible with how we educate and discipline.

Thanks, Dan. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

3. Dan Meyer says:

[1/23/2007 - 1:36 pm]

No no no what I mean is, schools are in the business of educating students, not socializing them. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be “flexible with how we educate and discipline.” We must be inflexible however in what we assess.

I said the comments were perfunctory because we’ve already danced this unsatisfying tango.

4. Elona says:

[1/23/2007 - 7:44 pm]

Schools are not in the business of socializing students? Oh yes they are! They teach students to be on time, to defer to authority, to co-operate and work well with others, to resolve conflict in more appropriate ways, to respect ourselves and others… I spend most of my day doing this. It’s a wonder I have any time to left to teach math. Parents tell me at parent teacher interviews that they “can’t do anything” with their kids, expecting me to do something, to socialize their child.

5. Dan Meyer says:

[1/23/2007 - 10:28 pm]

Schools do socialize students, absolutely they do. I mean, just the other day, I taught my kids how to dodge a speeding ticket …

You’ll have to make a better case than Todd did, however, to convince me that schools ought to assess students on how well they’ve been socialized.

6. Todd says:

[1/23/2007 - 10:36 pm]

Dan: [comment edited due to your quick reply to Elona] Wait, when did I say we ought to assess students on their socialization skills? Or teachers on their ability to socialize students? Just because we can’t assess it, does that mean we shouldn’t teach it? One of my biggest points is that standards should be developed for teachers, not for students. To flog that dead horse, many of the English standards are things that are not able to be assessed (at least not in any conventional, paper-and-pencil way). The Speaking and Listening standards are completely ignored by standardized tests for that reason.

Elona: I hate that school teaches deference to authority, but I guess you’re right. That is how we do our jobs. I just don’t like seeing it in print like that.

7. Dan Meyer says:

[1/24/2007 - 9:39 am]

I was referring to our brief conversation here, though from your comment, it seems I misunderstood you. We seem to be more closely aligned on assessing socialization vs. teaching it. Good show.

8. Elona says:

[1/24/2007 - 7:38 pm]

Dan: Should schools assess student behaviour? Should schools assess the behaviour of students who fight, steal, lie bullying,etc. Should these students get feedback from the school regarding their behaviour. Yes, they should if only because schools have an obligation to provide a safe learning environment for students and a safe working environment for staff. I don’t care what you call it, but when a student gets suspended or expelled that student has been assessed. Oh yes, Dan, could you please teach me how to dodge a speeding ticket.

Todd: Ditto.

9. Dan Meyer says:

[1/25/2007 - 11:51 am]

It may feel like we’re splitting hairs here but the difference between assessing learning and disciplining behavior is quite large. Expulsion is not the same as assessment.

Basically, what I’m trying unsuccessfully to imply here, is that if a student can prove they know the standards, it doesn’t matter how well they’ve been socialized. I don’t care if they can’t hold their place in a line by the 12th grade. Whether a student graduates highschool should be entirely predicated upon what they know not who they are.

The alternative, I promise, would be very very messy.

And Todd, damn, dude, thanks for your evenhanded triptych on standards. I’ve given you grief in the past for your stance, and probably will in the future, but I cannot fault your evenhandedness and fairplay. That only became clear to me yesterday.

10. Elona says:

[1/25/2007 - 5:42 pm]

Dan, yes a high school diploma is predicated upon what students know and how well students can demonstrate what they know. But, that doesn’t mean that their behaviour isn’t being assessed. Expulsion is the result of an assessment. An expelled student did not pass the expectations for behaviour. He failed to comply with the behavioural expectations which the school outlined. This expelled student can obtain his high school diploma, if he can demonstrate that he knows the stuff, in an alternative setting but not in a regular high school because of his behaviour. Some universities and colleges in Ontario are now looking at students’ behaviour as well their marks when deciding whether or not to admit students. Schools ask for a transcript showing marks but also a recent copy of a student’s report card which has an evaluation for behaviour on it – N, S, G, E. (Granted, no one is getting 85% for co-operation or 54% for inititive. I’ll grant you that.) The argument for looking at the evaluation for behaviour is that universities and colleges want students who exhibit positive behaviours and not just high marks. They are interested in a person’s behaviour, his emotional intelligence because it is an important determinant for success in the real world. At least that’s the way it is here in Ontario.

11. Teachers At Risk » “Add Your Comment -JoinThe Fun!” says:

[1/25/2007 - 6:29 pm]

[…] At the end of his posts, Todd invites readers to “add your comment-enjoy the fun!” That’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve added my comments, and Todd’s right. I am enjoying the fun. I think Todd and Dan are enjoying the fun, too. I always find it interesting to hear what other people have to say on a given topic. There’s nothing like a good discussion with adults after a day spent talking to teenagers. The Way I See ItPopularity: unranked [?]LicenseThis work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License. […]