GAPS AND STANDARDS: Do grade level "standards" even make sense?


Part 2—Two kids in sixth grade:
As we start, let's imagine two great kids on the first day of sixth grade.

They may live thousands of miles from each other, on the east and west coasts. They may live in different communities in some individual state.

They may attend different schools within the same school district. Who knows! They may be sitting next to each other, in the same classroom, on this first day of sixth grade.

We'll call them Student A and Student B. We'll also tell you this:

According to reliable testing, Student A is working two years above "grade level" in reading and math. By way of contrast, Student B is two years below grade level in reading and math.

In this way, we've described a four-year "achievement gap" between these two sixth graders. For the sake of clarity, let's memorialize them like this:
Two public school sixth graders:
Student A: Two years above grade level in reading and math
Student B: Two years below grade level
For the record, the public schools of this sprawling nation are full of kids who are working "above grade level." Our schools are also full of kids who are working "below grade level."

Having established this obvious point, let's return to some of the things Arne Duncan recently said.

Duncan served as Barack Obama's secretary of education and as his basketball buddy. He recently wrote an op-ed column in the Washington Post.

After making some comments about test score gains—comments which seemed to make little chronological sense—Duncan offered these thoughts about so-called "learning standards," a term he didn't define:
DUNCAN (4/2/18): None of our progress happened because we stood still. It happened because we confronted hard truths, raised the bar and tried new things. Beginning in 2002, federal law required annual assessments tied to transparency. The law forced educators to acknowledge achievement gaps, even if they didn’t always have the courage or capacity to address them.

A decade ago, learning standards were all over the place. Today, almost every state has raised standards.
According to Duncan, public schools have "raised the bar" over the past ten to sixteen years. Specifically, "almost every state has raised standards," Duncan said. He was referring to the various states' "learning standards," a term he didn't define.

What the heck did Duncan mean by his reference to "learning standards?" In part 1 of this report, we showed you one example.

We linked you to the "State Curriculum" for the state of Maryland, "the document that identifies the Maryland Content Standards and aligns them with the Maryland Assessment Program."

That document includes "broad, measurable statements about what students should know and be able to do" in each grade, from Pre-K through Grade 8. We also linked you to Maryland's "content standards" for Grade 6 math—"broad, measurable statements about what students should know and be able to do" by the time he or she has been taught Grade 6 math.

Simply put, that's the Grade 6 math curriculum for Maryland's public schools. That's the sort of thing Duncan means when he talks about the various states' "learning standards."

Plainly, Duncan thinks it's a good idea for the various states to have such "learning standards." He also seems to think it's good that the states have made these curriculum requirements harder in the past ten years—have "raised the bar" by "raising" their learning (or content) standards.

This sounds like a perfectly sensible thing. On the face of things, who could possibly object to the idea of "raising standards?"

It seems that Duncan is making good sense! That said, we refer you to our two imaginary students, between whom there exists a yawning "achievement gap."

Forget about higher standards for now. When we think about those two students, does it actually make sense to have grade-by-grade "standards" at all?

More specifically, should a pair of sixth-graders with that four-year gap confront the same curriculum in math? Does Arne Duncan's high-minded prescription actually make any sense?

We would say it doesn't! This raises question about the standards which are maintained by the nation's "education experts," who have mainly been expert, in recent decades, at noticing virtually nothing at all.

Should those sixth-graders, with that four-year gap, be taught the same math curriculum? Should they be taught the same way in other subject areas?

We'd say the obvious answer is no. We'll offer a quick two-point overview:

First, consider the challenges which may arise in the assignment of textbooks or reading assignments in general.

Student B, who's two years below grade level in reading, won't be able to read and understand the same books Student A can read. In a sensible universe, these two kids will not be given the same reading assignments in areas like history and science. Nor will they likely choose the books they read for pleasure from the same pile of books.

That four-year gap creates all kinds of challenges in the general realm of reading assignments in various subjects. Now let's consider math:

Those students are sitting side-by-side on the first day of sixth grade. Should they encounter the same lessons in math, drawn from the same set of "learning standards?"

We'll answer your question with one of our own. Imagine two additional students. This time, they're juniors in high school:
Two public school high school juniors:
Student C: Took Latin 3 last year; got an A-minus
Student D: Took Latin 1 and flunked
Now it's the start of a new school year. Should Student C and Student D receive the same Latin instruction this year just because they're in the same grade? On what planet would this question even need to be asked?

As with Latin, so too with math. Our original students, A and B, are light-years apart in math achievement and understanding. You'd have to be crazy, out of your mind, to confront them with the same math instruction.

Either that, or you'd have to be an "education expert" within our floundering culture.

A four-year gap at the start of sixth grade is a very large gap. That said, gigantic achievement gaps are found all through our sprawling nation's public schools.

In yesterday's report, we showed you the gap which exists between the average student in Baltimore City and the average student in nearby Howard County. The gap between those students is vast.

You ain't seen diddly yet! The gaps get much larger than that...

Tomorrow: Lexington, Mass. meets St. Louis, Missouri

Still coming: Horrific gaps on the Naep. Luckily, no one cares!


  1. "In a sensible universe, these two kids will not be given the same reading assignments in areas like history and science."

    What are you talking about, Bob? Of course all sixth graders should be judged by the same standards. Those who fail need to be retained, to repeat the grade.

  2. Duncan - "The law forced educators to acknowledge achievement gaps..."

    I don't like the word "gaps" in this context. We can most easily fix "gaps" by holding back the best students. That's not what we should be seeking.

    We should be focused on making sure every student gets a decent education, on an absolute scale. Also, that every student get an education that helps her/him fulfill his/her potential.

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  4. If you don't have the same curriculum nationwide, there is no point in doing nationwide testing and you cannot then assess the state of education in the country.

    If you don't have the same curriculum in place nationwide, then when students move to different states, they will not fit into the curriculum being taught in the new state since their previous state may have been introducing things in a different order or not teaching them at all. This is very hard on kids, especially those who are the most transient. At the high end, it hurts those whose parents work for companies like IBM (stands for I've Been Moved). At the low end it hurts children of migrant farm workers.

    If you don't have a standard curriculum, it makes problems for textbook publishers, teachers, and those who try to produce testing products aimed at specific grade levels. It hurts those who write children's books, design games and toys, and so on. They cannot know what to expect their target age group to know.

    There is a ripple effect across private schools and charter schools and especially home schooling. If there is no standard curriculum, how can home schoolers be evaluated to determine whether their kids are being properly taught? How does a charter school or private school know whether it is meeting expectations for comparable education? If public schools are not comparable to each other, how can these educational alternatives been evaluated for student progress?

    But Somerby is more concerned that individual students are behind others. His approach is to dumb down the entire curriculum so that those lagging will feel like they are keeping up when they are not.

    In Asian countries, when a child cannot keep up with the class curriculum, the parents hire tutors to make sure that child meets grade level expectations. They do this because they do not regard learning as based on ability but based on effort. A child who is behind must work harder, not be labeled special or dumb or disadvantaged and excused from doing the same level of work.

    If parents were held responsible for their kids preparation for school and prosecuted for failing to give them educational opportunities (whether at head start or in a paid preschool), we might see a change in the disparities that occur when kids enter kindergarten unprepared for school. This is a parental responsibility, like vaccinating kids, feeding them, clothing them, and keeping them safe. I don't see the solution as redesigning the school system but encouraging and helping parents to prepare their kids properly. That is where a lot of effort is currently being spent and I think Somerby should get behind such efforts, like those candidate Clinton incorporated into her education plan and personally worked on after being Secretary of State. Remember her, the person Somerby couldn't bring himself to enthusiastically support?

    But now he cares about education again. Think Trump will do anything about this? Think again.

  5. Many years ago I saw an educator hold up tracings of two feet, very different in size. The educator said, "These feet both belong to children who are in second grade. We would think it ludicrous to have a standardized second-grade shoe. And yet we think it's reasonable to have a second-grade curriculum."

    1. You wouldn't put one set of feet in sneakers, another in bedroom skippers and let another go barefoot. See, anyone can play the stupid analogy game.

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