Standardizing Learning: Rethinking a Policy of One-Size-Fits-All

Daily in countless classrooms across the U.S., teachers are using standardized curriculum to prepare their students to take and score highly on high-stakes achievement tests. But critics say forcing K-12 schools to follow a single standard of education is no cure-all. In fact, such an approach places students and teachers into a historic trend of capitalism to exert ever greater control over the workplace.

I spoke with five classroom teachers in California’s capital city. They have a range of opinions about the state forcing all teachers to use standardized curriculum to raise students’ scores on achievement tests.

Bob Priestly, who currently teaches 7th-grade science at Sam Brannan Middle School in the Sacramento City Unified District, has a critique of the standard curriculum and achievement tests. He has been a teacher for 16 years.

“We aren’t drones now, but before standardized tests there was more freedom for teachers to create their own approaches to the subject matter such as life science,” he said. “Such freedom is unwelcome now and teachers can be administratively disciplined for that.

“The traditional middle school before standardized tests was a place where kids explored new things inside and outside the classroom in an ‘exploratory wheel’ of elective classes, such as art, drama, second languages, and shop. That’s been wiped out as a result of penalties for sub-par test scores. If they score under the proficient level on the tests, students can lose their elective classes and have to take up to two language arts and math classes each (per semester) to attain proficiency the next time.”

The test scores of Brian Laird’s students at West Campus High School in the Sacramento City Unified School District rank among the highest in the city and California. He currently teaches advanced placement and college prep economics and U.S. history. His students take the state tests May 1-14, the results of which he uses to find any instructional areas for possible improvement.

“Testing helps students only in as much as it helps me to teach the standardized curriculum,” said Laird, who began teaching in California’s Silicon Valley city of San Jose 12 years ago, arriving at West Campus in 2000. In his view, the state curriculum is generally “helpful to have” as a “map for instruction.”

Rose Penrose currently teaches 6th-grade English at the Natomas Middle School in Sacramento’s Natomas Unified School District. In her sixth year of teaching, she instructs three 88-minute classes of English, with 30 students in each. Penrose and her fellow teachers, by department and grade level, create a “pacing guide” to help them to identify when and how to teach in conformity with state curriculum standards for achievement tests, which her sixth graders began in mid-April.

“Having accountability and standards is good,” Penrose said. “They give everybody a measure of where we want to be. I know that my kids know the material, but the test phrasing can stump them sometime.”

Sheryl Tolson currently teaches second grade at the Anna Kirchgater Elementary School in Sacramento’s Elk Grove Unified School District. The fourth-year teacher’s 20 students took the standardized tests in mid-April. Test scores will be ready in August to help third-grade teachers pinpoint which instructional areas to focus on, she said.

“I will also get an idea for my next year’s class on how to teach students more effectively. If the students’ reading comprehension scores are low, for example, I can work harder on that.”

The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which Pres. Bush signed in 2002, mandates that American students score higher each year on the standardized tests. In California grades 2-11, 37 percent of students’ Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program tests scores in math and language arts must reach the proficiency level, up from 24 percent originally, said Pam Slater, spokeswoman for the state Dept. of Ed.

“Every year the standards we teach are ratcheted up,” said Priestly, who teaches between 26 and 35 students in five classes for which he uses the state curriculum. The students in part learn about the processes of sex cell division and single cell division.

“We’re drowning in standards and tests, which are a vice squeezing students,” he added. “I’m driving students at a fast pace towards taking the tests and accomplishing so many standards.” The NCLB sanctions for STAR test scores weigh heavily on Priestly’s mind and those of his fellow administrators and teachers. “We’re all in this thing together,” he said, while lamenting the inadequate means which the NCLB law provides to schools to meet the federal mandates.

Slater of the state Ed. Dept. gave a nod to this aspect of the NCLB. “The federal funding issue has been a criticism,” she said.

Across town from Priestly, Debra Nordyke teaches kindergarten at the Del Paso Heights Elementary School in North Sacramento. Her five- and six-year-old students take tests on math (measurements and shapes) four times a year. Testing on language arts (reading and vocabulary) is three times per year.

“Testing has benefited the kids by improving their language arts and math skills,” she said. Her district and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company (a $2.5-billion firm which calls itself “the preeminent educational publisher in the United States”) create the curriculum and tests which Nordyke teaches to. She has been teaching K-4 students for 23 years in the Del Paso Heights School District, one of several others which will join the new Twin Rivers Unified School District on July 1.

According to Nordyke, before the advent of the standardized curriculum and tests, teachers had to create their own. In that pre-testing era, this could be a stiff task for newer teachers. While acknowledging that standardized curriculum and tests have helped primary grade students to gain mastery of literacy and math, she noted that, before then, students and teachers had more time for art, drama, movement, music, and science. “That extra time improved students’ creativity and social skills,” Nordyke said.

California Senate Bill 376 created the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program in 1997. The California State Dept. of Education develops, reviews, and revises STAR testing and the standard curriculum, Slater said.

STAR tests for grades two through 11 have four subject areas: language arts, math, science, and social science. Student test scores are ranked from outstanding to proficient to basic to below basic to far-below basic.

Against this backdrop, a new peer-reviewed study in the journal Educational Policy Analysis Archives by scholars at the Rice University Center for Education raises crucial questions about state-federal policy relating to standardized tests and students who score sub-proficiently on them.

Rice’s multiple-year analysis of more than 270,000 Texas students criticized the use of a single standard to measure a student’s achievement. “The degradation of the curriculum into test drills, which have little relevance beyond the state test, distances students who otherwise wish to persist to graduation, exacerbating the likelihood they will leave school,” the study reported.

In other words, forcing schools, students, and teachers into a box of escalating standards alienates youth and thereby increases the likelihood of their becoming dropouts versus graduates.

Where is this 11-year trend of state standards that marry school curriculum to STAR tests headed? In California and nationally, school districts and county education departments with tests scores below NCLB mandates face penalties pegged to the number of years in which annual progress falls below the measure of proficiency. The penalties for being out of compliance with this NCLB mandate put such under-performers into the “program improvement” category. The NCLB penalties range from replacing school staff in year three to a state takeover in year four. And that’s not all. “Once schools are in [public improvement] for five years they can be forced into privatization,” write Steven Miller and Jack Gerson in their article titled “The Corporate Surge Against Public Schools.”

California’s state education board approved a new approach to program improvement crafted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell on March 13. As with students whose scores are sub-proficient, programs are ranked according to their need for improvement: intensive, moderate, light, or other.

Del Paso is in the category of “other,” having narrowly missed federal accountability targets. The district has been placed in year three of program improvement status, said Fred Balcom, director of the accountability and improvement division at the California Education Dept.

Priestly is working with two Sacramento-area schools that are in multi-year program improvement. He declined to name either school.

Below-level STAR test scores are hardly the lot of Laird’s students at West Campus High School. There, 500 students apply for 200 open slots in the 800-member student body. That number is roughly a third of the enrollment at high schools such as Burbank, Hiram Johnson, Kennedy, and McClatchy in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

In Laird’s view, the state curriculum is generally “helpful to have” as a “map for instruction.” However, Laird thinks that some of the textbooks he uses with his students are “incredibly simplistic.” Maybe that helps to explain this response to standardized education.

Students dislike the STAR tests, according to Laird. Such a stance put teachers in a dicey spot. “We ask students to please do their best on the tests. That helps to keep us in the good graces of administrators and politicians.”

There have been 11 years of momentum to unify California’s school standards to improve students’ test scores. This trend of standardizing education comes from the dawn of industrial capitalism, not always easy to see, given the misleading appearances of school accountability that can fog such history. In brief, the capitalist system spawned factories with work forces tied to the time clock to boost productivity, the amount of goods and services workers create per hour. A class of owners sought to remove labor creativity from their hired help and replace that with uniformity for reasons of control and profit.

To be sure, private profit is not a driving force in U.S. public schools. But forcing an industrial regimen of conformity upon the learning process can and does push youth and their teachers away from classroom time for creative discovery, thanks to the NCLB law.

What current learning standards backed up by the force of federal and state laws assume but fail to actually make is the case for one way to best measure youth’s learning and teachers’ instructing. It should be no surprise that the satisfaction of students and teachers in the politically charged regimen of K-12 schools is a mixed bag.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, California. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Seth, or visit Seth's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Faddy said on May 6th, 2008 at 9:34am #

    Has it ever occurred to any of you that in almost all states the people (professors) who teach our teachers are not allowed to teach our kids?

    Why? Because our professors didn’t have to take all of those meaningless and terribly dull and boring education classes that lead to what we call certification or licensure.

    Standardized curriculum is the next step in dumbing down education. The first step was to dumb down the teachers … now we want to dumb down what they teach?


    As an autodidact and iconoclast, I spend my time reading and thinking … that is when I am not working just hard enough to buy the books to read and then think about. Most teachers don’t have time to read, much less think, because they spend so much time doing administrative crap and making (and then grading) meaningless assignments to prove to marginally educated idiots (called administrators) that they have their classes under control because the kids appear to be busy.

    Thus, busy work is king (or queen) in the classroom and actual learning and inquiry and all of that stuff we say we want to happen is totally ignored.

    Then again, our education system does seem to educate some people some of the time. Obama, the fellow running for president, got an education because as a black with a single mom he fit the demographics that help bright kids ‘get’ there if they have a support network. Suburban Hillary had all of the characteristics for a woman to get through the education system … and McCain was privileged from the get go as a military officer’s child to have the requisite perks to be where he is.

    But what of the unwashed masses? What of the kids we send to school for seven or eight years only to see them drop out? They are the ones who are the measure of our success (actually failure). When less than 70% of kids who start school graduate, the question has to be … not why … but rather: isn’t this what we want out of our education system?

    So, now that I’ve rambled … the question is: just how damned dumb do the powers that be want us to be? And, the corollary … why the hell do we put up with it?


    Oh, yeah, my email is: moc.liamgnull@hguomcam.yddaf in case you want to carry on a discussion person to person instead of here.

  2. Edwin Pell said on May 6th, 2008 at 11:22am #

    For me the issue is letting the government teach children. I do not trust the government that much. Or more exactly I see what the government is and I do not want its values passed on to anyone. I am for 100% voucher based education. Here is $10,000 send your kid to whatever school or home-school.

    I particularly like “Sudbury Schools” (see They are run as democracies. Each student and each staff have a vote. They create they laws they will live by. Of course there is no place for coercion in such a system. The student decide for themselves how they will spend the day.

  3. TS Draegeth said on May 6th, 2008 at 2:08pm #

    Privatization is enforced as punishment for the “failing” schools as part of the master plan to destroy public education.

    That is why resources are purposefully drawn down as artificial standards are pumped up. NCLB is slow poison for the principle that even the children of non-elites deserve an education.

  4. hp said on May 7th, 2008 at 9:15am #

    “I have never let my education get in the way of my learning.”

  5. hp said on May 7th, 2008 at 9:21am #

    Whoops. Should read.

    “I have never let my learning get in the way of my education.”

  6. Annie said on May 7th, 2008 at 10:20am #

    For the author or anyone else in the know: Do publishing companies (like Houghton Mifflin) lobby for these stanardized tests so that school districts will have to buy their [the publishing company’s] materials?
    What do teachers want in order to… a) make their jobs better (how can they tap once again their passion for teaching) and b) educate children more effectively?

  7. Brian Koontz said on May 7th, 2008 at 10:01pm #

    In reply to Faddy:

    “So, now that I’ve rambled … the question is: just how damned dumb do the powers that be want us to be? And, the corollary … why the hell do we put up with it?”

    The majority of people don’t understand it, and if they do they don’t care enough about it to do anything.

    The point of the educational system is not to educate, but to avoid educating. The only way to get an education is to live, to quest and work, to experience, to read, and to think. School is far from useless, but a student has to be really creative to get much out of it.

    The vast majority of students are not going to become part of the ruling class. Since the ruling class controls school (through state control either directly or otherwise) it’s not in their interests to educate students. The only effective education occurs in graduate school.

    An example of the lack of education in the “educational system” is the incredibly slow pace of instruction of most subjects whereas drivers’ education is done in a couple weeks. Driving a car is more difficult than algebra, yet teachers drag out algebra instruction for years. The reasoning here is simple – the state wants it’s citizens to be able to drive but doesn’t want it’s citizens to learn algebra. So it gives REAL instruction in driving, excellent instruction, and wastes huge amounts of students’ time, boring them, making them hate algebra – they essentially *create* difficulty in the subject. For me to say algebra should be taught in two weeks sounds ridiculous precisely because American propaganda has been so successful.

    To aid this whole process, American propagandists have pushed the importance of intelligence – and stress that humans differ greatly in their intelligence. The truth is otherwise – there is little difference in intelligence between humans. The point of the propaganda is to provide a reason why there is disparity in educational performance from student to student (one gets higher grades because one is more intelligent) and conceal the true reasons – family life, future expectations, relationship to the ruling class, among others.

    People say that students hate school, and that’s true. But they are confused about something crucial. They think that students hate *education*, and that’s completely false. Students crave education, and they hate school because it prevents them from getting an education, in the same sense that eating junk food prevents one from getting nutrition or filling one’s mind with trivia prevents one from getting knowledge or listening to George W. Bush prevents one from hearing truth.

    Very few people in America understand any of this – they keep linking state-controlled or state-aligned schools with education. Sadly, the truth is just the opposite.

    A common question that arises when people hear this is – if the education system is so useless, why do students who do well in it get high paying jobs?

    The answer is two-fold, and neither aspect has to do with education –

    #1) Accreditation – job applications neither ask about nor care about what someone knows. There are no tests given in most cases, and even when tests are included they do not override accreditation. What they care about is an applicant’s accreditation – at what point in the educational system the applicant reached (what kind of degree, if any).

    #2) Systemic conditioning – the further a student goes in the educational system, the more he is conditioned toward state (ruling class) obedience. This is why education is conducted in a hierarchical teacher-knows-best model with students in an obedient and slavish role. Also, as a family supplies more and more wealth into a child’s education that child becomes more indebted to the educational experience, thus needing a high paying job which is favored by the state, thus aligning himself with ruling class interests (such as favoring income inequality, low taxes, corporate benefits, white race rule, etc.) in order to not create social problems which could hinder his pursuit of wealth.

    However, as previously noted, when a student has already proved himself enough of an obedient slave, cringing before the master (the state), the state rewards him with a position in graduate school, and he finally gets a decent education. He gets a good paying job, his mind destroyed by propaganda, and he calls it a life. His ignorance of this entire process saves him the humiliation of self-knowledge.

  8. Max Shields said on May 10th, 2008 at 7:19pm #

    Life long learning.

    Education to the extent that it provides the tools to spend ones life learning and applying and learning, and sharing.

    Learning circles, extended use of libraries with human beings to support democratic learning. Pulling a book randomly from a shelf and becoming acquainted with a world beyond one’s reach.

    Learning and learning to learn….