In determining the quality of their standards, states and districts should examine them across a range of dimensions. The committee recommends using at least the following criteria:
Basis in Content. Standards are most effective as guides for instruction when they focus on the essential knowledge and skills in a subject area. Standards for student attitudes and beliefs are more difficult to build instructional programs around, more difficult to measure, and they may be inappropriate.
Cognitive Complexity. Standards challenge all students when they ask them not only to demonstrate knowledge of fundamental facts in a discipline but also to show that they can use their knowledge to analyze new situations and reason effectively.
Reasonableness. Standards are effective when students, teachers, and parents believe they are attainable with effort. Standards that are far beyond what students should be reasonably expected to achieve—asking fourth graders to analyze Hamlet—invite cynicism and encourage schools to try to get around them.
Focus and Parsimony. Similarly, standards are effective when they are perceived to be attainable within the constraints of classroom capacity. Standards that are too extensive and that cannot possibly be addressed in full are counterproductive.
Clarity. Standards can guide classroom practice if teachers can translate the instructional goals into instructional activities. On the one hand, standards that are vague and that lead to innumerable interpretations are less helpful. On the other hand, standards that are too detailed encourage schools to emphasize breadth at the expense of depth.
The following two examples of state standards—science standards from Connecticut (Box 3-1) and mathematics standards from North Carolina (Box 3-2)—generally meet the committee's criteria. They have both earned high marks from the three national organizations that review standards, and both provide clear guidance to assessment developers and teachers. Both also represent parsimonious choices about what is important in their respective disciplines. In the case of Connecticut, the example shows how standards were revised from an earlier, longer set, to enable assessment developers to measure student performance against them.