The educational buzz-word of the 1990's has been "Standards." As is stated in the definitions section of Washington State's Essential Learnings and Assessment webpage, "'Performance standards' or 'standards' means the criteria used to determine if a student has successfully learned the specific knowledge or skill being assessed as determined under RCW 28A.630.885(3)(b). The standards should be set at internationally competitive levels" (Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, Essential Learnings and Assessments, 1999). Basically standards are academic targets for students and educators to aim for. The original intention by the governmental commissions and organizations that created them was to improve student academic performance as compared with other nations. It is interesting that the United States has chosen to do this in a relatively decentralized manner. Each state has been encouraged to develop their own standards, assessment, and accountability systems. This has meant the birth of fifty different sets of standards along with fifty different ways to enforce the implementation of those standards. Iowa alone has chosen to give the power to create the standards to their local school districts rather than using a state-wide reform model. Other states have created very exacting state-wide standards with criterion and norm referenced testing tied to these standards. Some states have even instituted reward and punishment systems that are based on the outcomes of these tests.
In a bid to help with the creation of these standards nation-wide, many of the professional educational organizations developed standards for their own subject areas. These professional organization based standards have become the foundation to many of the state standards. This is perhaps most evident with those created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The standards they created in 1989 have had a strong influence in the development of many state mathematics standards. In the area of language arts, the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English worked together to create standards.They are relatively generic and consist of twelve standards for all of the language arts. In contrast, Washington state, the state this writer works in, has separate standards for reading, writing, and communication (listening and speaking). As a way of comparison, the Washington state standards for writing include four general standards each of which has two to five component standards (Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, Essential Academic Learning Requirements in Writing, 1999). Additionally, Washington state has created benchmarks for these standards that give educators a snapshot of what these standards should look like at grades four, seven, and ten (Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, Essential Academic Learning Requirements in Writing, 1999). Because helping children meet those standards doesn't just happen during the three benchmark years, the state is also creating frameworks for each grade level that detail specific things children should be able to do to meet the writing standards. The table below lists the NCTE/IRA language arts standards in the left column and the Washington state writing standards in the right column.
When comparing the two sets of standards it becomes apparent that two different philosophies were guiding the two groups. The NCTE/IRA standards show that the writers believed that all the language arts should be considered as an integrated whole. On the other hand the writers of the Washington state EALRs view the language arts as made up of distinct sub-disciplines. There are standards that are common to the two groups and others that are not. For instance NCTE/IRA standard four is very similar to Washington's writing EALRs 1 through 2.4. The NCTE/IRA standard ten, relating to speakers of languages other than English, is not found reflected anywhere in the Washington state EALRs that relate to language arts.
When it comes time to implement instructional strategies that help students meet academic standards, Washington state schools generally follow the state EALRs, benchmarks, and frameworks (as observed by this author). This only makes sense as the state's assessment system is aligned to the state standards. Standards set forth by the national professional organizations have influenced the creation of the state's EALRs but there is not a direct correlation between the professional organizations' standards and the state standards.
Implementing Washington State's Essential Academic Learning Requirements is left up to the individual schools. In other words the "what" is given to educators by the state, the "how" is the local school districts' responsibility (Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, Essential Learnings and Assessments, 1999). At this writer's school a math curriculum was purchased to help meet the state standards, as were two reading curriculums. It is interesting to note that the purchased math curriculum (Everyday Math) was considered as the only curriculum material needed and that teachers were expected to "follow the script" of the teachers' guides, virtually ignoring the state math EALRs and frameworks. The reading curriculums however (Rigby and Pegasus), were considered to be materials to support teachers in their efforts to meet the learning requirements, the EALRs and frameworks themselves were to be the guides to instruction. As of this writing, the district is in the curriculum renewal process for writing. The Writing Subject Area Committee for the school district has recommended that the state frameworks guide instruction and that instead of purchasing a stand-alone curriculum, funds be directed to staff training instead.
As a multiage educator, this writer finds Washington state's Essential Academic Learning Requirements to be helpful. They provide welcome targets and when several years' EALRs are combined, they also provide an academically rigorous continuum. The assessment system however does interfere with learning in a multiage environment. Expecting that all students will perform somewhat equally by meeting or exceeding specific criteria at a certain age is antithetical to multiage practices (Yates, Foundations for Multiage Education, 2000). However, Washington state's assessment system is based on benchmark years with testing at the fourth, seventh, and tenth grades. Because of this, the structure of Washington's assessment system does allow for schools to effectively implement multiage learning environments. This is consistent with the state's policy to leave the decision on how to meet the standards in local hands. As a contrast, some states have enacted yearly assessment systems aligned to yearly standards. This creates a structure which, by its very nature, can virtually eliminate multiage learning environments among other alternative educational options (Lindsay, 2000). Hopefully, as public pressure builds to ease the assessment and accountability systems in these states, policy makers will modify the structure of the systems in such a way as to allow for alternative public educational pathways (such as multiage) to again flourish.
All sources used in creating this website are cited on the Bibliography and Sources webpage. Also note that in-text citations used above are linked directly to the appropriate portion of the Bibliography and Sources webpage.