Academic “Standards”An Oxymoron of Modern Education
By Andrew Pudewa
Once upon a time, the term ―grade‖ in school meant something. Now that term means
nothing but approximate age, since it certainly doesn’t mean actual ability. Consider this: In
a 1990 book entitled Why Johnny Can’t Write, authors Linden and Whimbey note that
according to The Writing Report Card (from the National Assessment of Educational
Progress,) seventy-five percent of eleventh grade students have inadequate ability to do the
type of ―writing required for educational advancement or business and technical work.‖
If ―eleventh grade‖ meant anything other than ―approximately 16½ years old,‖ it wouldn’t
be possible for seventy-five percent of eleventh grade students to have inadequate ability.
They would still be in tenth grade, or ninth grade, or eighth grade.
Now, I don’t know a single business owner or university professor who would argue that
writing skills of high school graduates have improved since 1990. If anything, it’s worse
now—twenty-four years later—with parallel declines in reading and math competencies.
Why? Given the amount of attention, funding, and effort expended, this doesn’t make
sense. In 1975, the College Board decried the decline of SAT scores.
In 1983, the National
Commission on Excellence in Education called for higher standards for teachers and
students, along with a core curriculum,
which prompted President Bush in 1990 to set
national goals for ―excellence in education.‖
Congress attempted to mandate standards
with the ―Goals 2000: Educate America Act‖ in 1994.
States cooperated, issuing grade-
level standards, then ―revised‖ standards, then ―improved‖ standards—all of it so effective
that in 2002, the second President Bush signed into law the ―No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
Act‖ which required student assessments for all schools receiving federal funds.
based on the premise that setting high standards and creating measurable goals would
improve individual outcomes. Within five years, however, this mandate had earned a
nickname: ―No Child Gets Ahead.‖ During the following decade, the SAT was re-normed,
state standards re-revised; US student skills continued to decline compared to other
developed nations, and the lofty language of the Goals 2000 Act grew more and more
Currently we see the newest iteration of a failed idea: the ―Common Core State Standards
Regardless of what you think about the idea politically, it too will fail. Why? It’s
because the term ―standards‖ has become a self-contradictory term. If the so-called
―educrats‖ were totally honest, they would use the term ―dreams‖ or ―hopes‖ or even
―wishes‖ to label their programs, but they cannot be called ―standards‖ unless there are
some consequences for not meeting those supposed standards. But there are not.
Standards typically use verbiage such as: ―Students will, by the end of the year be able to
…‖ However, the new Common Core objectives omit the ―Students will…‖ subject part of the
sentence and simply complete it in imperative form: Compare and contrast the point of view
from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first and third-
person narrations. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.6)
While you and I might argue about whether this is an appropriate objective for a ten-year-
old, or whether that statement is actually specific enough to determine if a student has
acquired such an ability, the real problem is a different one: There are absolutely no
consequences if a student does not meet that criterion. Will he remain in fourth grade until
he can meet that objective? By no means!
In truth, a student could fail to meet every established standard for his or her grade level,
and he or she would still go on to the next grade level simply by merit of being a year older!
These are not standards; they are at best wishful thinking, at worst vague semantics, and
most certainly windfalls for publishers who can now incorporate these important new
standards into every page of their wonderful new (and even more expensive) textbooks.
If you want standards, you have to give them some teeth. Take, for example, a section
from the eighth grade final exam in Salina, Kansas, 1895:
1. Give the nine rules for the use of Capital Letters.
2. Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.
4. What are the Principal Parts of a verb? Give Principal Parts of do, lie, lay, and run.
5. Define Case. Illustrate each Case.
6. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation.
7–10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand
the practical use of the rules of grammar.
Not passing this exam would mean not being promoted to ninth grade. These learning
objectives (though painful) were rigorous, achievable, and concrete; most significantly,
failure to meet them had consequences.
So what does all this standards brouhaha mean to homeschoolers? Well, it may depend on
one’s thinking. If you are concerned that curricula which purport to meet the newest
standards will somehow dumb down your children, you may want to boycott certain
publishers (though you might accidentally exclude some excellent time-tested materials that
haven’t changed a bit, but do happen to ―meet or exceed‖ certain standards). If you choose
to basically ignore the vague and ineffectual language of modern standards and focus on
teaching the basic skills of reading, writing, logic and arithmetic, you will likely find that
your children do well on standardized tests (if you bother to take them) and excel in
university classes when they reach that level.. If you are part of a charter school or program
that is required by law to incorporate the new standards, you will probably see things
change—but also stay the same.
As Solomon wisely observed, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be
done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV).
version of the idea will prove no more effective than earlier efforts. Academic standards
initiatives (in the modern sense) cannot really accomplish anything; for the word
―standards,‖ redefined as it has been for the past century, becomes nothing but an
Andrew Pudewa is the director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing
(www.excellenceinwriting.com) and a homeschooling father of seven. Presenting
throughout North America, he addresses issues relating to teaching, writing, thinking,
spelling, and music with clarity and insight, practical experience and humor. He and his
beautiful, heroic wife, Robin, currently teach their two youngest children at home in
9. Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright
© 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved
worldwide. www.zondervan.com The ―NIV‖ and ―New International Version‖ are trademarks registered in the
United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™
Copyright 2014, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in
the Annual Print 2014 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education
magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and
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