More than half the states received "D" or "F" grades overall for their academic standards for teaching English, math, science, and U.S. and world history to elementary and high school students, according to a new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation , a Washington, D.C., think tank that pushes for tougher educational standards.
Nine states earned "A" and "B" grades. Three of those states - California, Indiana and Massachusetts - were lauded for their "A" grades across all five subjects.
Four states flunked overall: Alaska, Hawaii, Montana and Wyoming. The Fordham report includes individual state summaries on all five subjects.
"The lesson is that good standards do matter, yet state standards are as mediocre as ever," said Michael J. Petrelli, one of the report's authors and the foundation's vice president for national programs and policy, at a news conference unveiling the report Aug. 29.
The report looked at each state's standards, the guidelines as to what students are expected to learn in each grade or grade cluster, for each of the five subjects. The only exceptions were Rhode Island, which has no standards for history, and Iowa, which does not have written standards for any subject, although its Legislature passed a bill this year to create some.
Education reformers today are looking to well-defined academic standards to help increase students' knowledge, skills and scores on standardized tests. States' progress in improving test scores is now being measured under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act, with penalties for schools that fail to show enough progress in meeting their states' standards in reading and math.
The report graded standards high if they listed clear expectations, narrowed down topics to what could realistically be taught in a year, suggested specific activities and focused on content.
Fordham's reviewers looked for specific content in each subject. For example, states were graded low if their history standards didn't include chronology, or if their science standards questioned or didn't include a reference to evolution. The report's review of Oklahoma's science standards states, "Life science is superficial and the word 'evolution' is never used. This is unacceptable, and it alone justifies the F grade." Montana received an "F" in science partly for not having any standards for chemistry.
The Fordham Foundation last released a similar report in 2000, although it graded geography then instead of world history. Since then, 36 states have updated standards in at least one subject while 27 revised all their standards. Despite that, the national average grade in both 2000 and 2006 was C-.
A few states stood out for their significant improvement, such as Indiana (from a C to A); New York and Georgia (both from C- to B ); and New Mexico (from F to C ).
Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., said it was disappointing that states as a whole did not improve. "It's discouraging that the overall grade hasn't gone up, that states haven't seen the need to create more concrete high-quality standards," he said.
The American Federation of Teachers also releases reports on state standards, although they focus less on specific content in each subject and more on whether the academic standards are jargon-free and clearly defined. Heather Glidden, one of the authors of that group's recent Smart Testing report, agreed with Fordham's assessment on which states have the best and most improved standards.
However, she faulted the Fordham report for often basing its grades on old standards. The Fordham report noted that 36 states have revised or are currently revising standards that had already been reviewed.
"One thing I noticed with the 2006 report is that while it says 2006, it appears more than a third of (the standards) are either being revised or are already revised," she said. "Basically, they're obsolete."