Setting high academic standards is a key component in the drive to achieve educational equality today. However, academic standards cannot be separated from the environments in which they exist—in classrooms, schools, districts, and states and nationwide. One important factor in the call for academic standards is political pressure related to the position of the United States in the global society as well as the need to strengthen what the 1983 report A Nation at Risk called “the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society.” A review of the recent history of academic standards reforms is important in understanding how this movement relates to both assessment and standardized curriculum.
Among other reforms, A Nation at Risk called for “more rigorous and measurable standards.” This early call for academic standards at both collegiate and precollegiate levels was linked to assessment as well as higher curricular expectations. Although the call for academic standards was nationwide, the efforts toward reform were focused within the schools themselves.
In 1994, Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, further refining the demand to increase academic standards in U.S. schools. Among other things, Goals 2000 set specific, measurable academic standards, particularly in mathematics and science. Higher academic performance was to be achieved via the development of “voluntary national” content and performance standards. The act encouraged states to become more actively involved in setting performance standards (assessment) while defining content standards nationally. Needless to say, it was easier for states to develop performance standards than it was for diverse groups of individuals to agree on the content of material to be taught in schools. Only content standards for mathematics were established, and even those were debated vigorously.
In 2001, the No Child Left Behind educational reform effort called for increased accountability based upon “state standards in reading and mathematics.” As with the two preceding reform efforts, it embedded academic standards in the curriculum, generating an even stronger reliance on assessment under the No Child Left Behind Act. State governments must establish criteria (standardized testing) that the federal government approves, with the explicit end result being either success or failure. Although No Child Left Behind is a national reform effort, the criteria for academic standards vary considerably across states. Thus, while this push toward academic standards is embedded in the curriculum, with a standardized test labeling the school as succeeding or failing, pressure for student success can translate into teaching to tests.
The call for higher academic standards changed over the years as various reform efforts shaped the criteria for setting the curriculum and assessment of academic standards. Colleges and universities, while encouraged to develop higher academic standards beginning with A Nation at Risk, have not yet had to conduct rigorous national assessments of curricula. The push for higher academic standards in elementary and secondary education, however, has moved beyond the classroom and schools and is currently embedded in state and national assessment.
- Goals 2000: Educate America Act. 1994. Washington, DC: House of Representatives.
- National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
- No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/index.html).
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