Can standards raise the ceiling of student performance?

In my last blog, I noted that a recent Harvard study found mixed results for raising state standards on student performance with one notable exception: low-income and minority eighth-graders in low- performing states appeared to benefit from their states adopting better academic standards.

This would suggest that standards may have raised the floor on student performance, but what about the ceiling? Have more rigorous standards helped to raise the performance of students at the upper end of the spectrum?

At a McREL Network for Innovative Education event, Harvard professor Martin West reported that after he dug deeply into data from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compared student performance in 30 developed nations, he noticed an alarming “other achievement gap” between the top performing American students and top performers in other developed nations.

West analyzed results from the 2005 NAEP exam and the 2006 PISA exam, specifically looking at comparable levels of “advanced” student performance. His work showed that top six percent of U.S. students performed at the same levels as 28 percent of students in Taiwan, 21 percent of students in Finland, 15 percent of students in Canada, and 13 percent of students from Australia.

So why do other nations have larger percentages of students performing at the same level as top students from the United States? Have we set our standards too low? One of the premises behind the Common Core State Standards, in fact, is that we need “fewer, clearer, higher” standards to move us away from the “mile wide inch deep” curriculum that has long plagued American education. In so doing, we can allow our students to develop the deeper levels of understanding and application that are tested on the PISA exam (Read a comparison of PISA vs. NAEP tests).

Therefore, better standards alone may not be sufficient to raise the achievement of all students—at either end of the spectrum. As I’ll explore in my next blog, if all we focus on is better standards, we may overlook a critical missing component in the formula for school—and student—success.

How well are districts, schools, and teachers challenging students at the top of the spectrum to raise the ceiling on performance?

Written by McREL’s Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing, and New Business Development

One Comment

  • Steve says:

    Interesting point about going deeper in fewer standards. How will the standards be selected? At what point could we start letting students choose areas to focus on, rather than teaching with the idea of all students should receive the same content.

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