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and district staffs to use in evaluating and changing their curricula or instructional programs.
Because content standards represent a community's expectations for all children, setting content standards is a political process. In most cases, standards have been set by groups of subject-matter experts, educators, representatives of the public, and public officials, usually meeting in the public eye. The public process is aimed at ensuring that the result earns broad approval.
In practice, though, this public effort at times has been hotly contentious. Different groups come into the process with different goals for students. For example, some want to emphasize students' readiness for the workplace; others place a higher priority on the knowledge and skills young people need for effective citizenship; others stress students' need to understand an increasingly multicultural society.
Largely as a result of these often-raucous debates, the products of these efforts vary widely. Some standards are highly specific, spelling out in detail the content knowledge students should demonstrate, whereas others are more general—or vague, as critics contend. The degree to which the standards are “challenging” also varies, with some states demanding much more of their students than others.
Several organizations have evaluated the state standards, in order to provide some independent determination of the quality of the documents (American Federation of Teachers, 1998; Council for Basic Education, 1998; Fordham Foundation, 1998; Wixson and Dutro, 1998). However, the ratings of these organizations vary, depending on the criteria they use to assess standards. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, focused on clarity and specificity, whereas the Council for Basic Education emphasized “rigor.” As a result, to take one case, Virginia's English standards were rated as “exemplary” by the American Federation of Teachers, yet earned a B-minus from the Council for Basic Education.
The standards also vary in the degree to which they guide policy and practice. On the one hand, standards that are considered general can be assessed in many ways, but it is difficult to make a valid inference about student performance against standards that can be interpreted so broadly. At the same time, as one study of nine states found, state standards that were considered general had little influence on instruction, since teachers can interpret the standards idiosyncratically. Standards that are specific, in contrast, tend to yield similar interpretations by all teachers, and thus can be implemented more easily. However, states varied in the extend to which they provided assistance to local educators to implement standards (Massell et al., 1997). The role of states and districts in helping schools implement standards is considered in Chapter 5.
On the other hand, standards that are too numerous provide little guidance to either assessment designers or local educators, because they contain too many topics and skills for assessment designers to include on assessments or for teachers to teach in a school year. Assessments that attempt to measure an