This has also been the topic of probably half of the superintendent's conference days I've attended in my 25 year career.
The "state standards" are outlines describing what information and skills students should be able to master in each class and at each grade level. They're amazingly vague. For example, one of the high school standards in biology (they changed the name of the subject ten years ago to "Living Environment," but I steadfastly refuse to comply):
- explain the basic biochemical processes in living organisms and their importance in maintaining dynamic equilibrium.
Question: Why do living organisms have basic biochemical processes?
Correct answer: Because they are important in maintaining dynamic equilibrium.
If this was a multiple choice question, it would be accompanied by obviously ridiculous wrong answers, such as "So they can have an unlimited life span." Note as well that you don't have to have any specific mastery of content in order to get this question right; in order to finesse this test, all you have to do recognize jargon. Last year I did not have a single student fail the state exam in biology, and this includes the student who while labeling a diagram of a human body incorrectly indicated that the anus was located on the left arm.
I wish I were making this up.
Increasingly, the standards are becoming vaguer, while simultaneously the notion of "progress" is becoming more data-driven. We're trying to turn everything into numbers. Just yesterday, we had the first of seven faculty meetings this year, the thrust of which will be to consider the topic of grading. This isn't just in our school; statewide, the professional b-b stackers at the State Education Department in Albany are assigning numbers to all of us, and that includes the teachers and school administrators. Yes, I will receive a grade at the end of the year. No, I don't particularly give a damn what grade I get, because honestly, it's meaningless. We go on and on about how "feedback needs to provide information to students about what they did incorrectly, and how to improve" -- and the people at State Ed are going to take my entire year and collapse it into: "86." If I get an 84 next year, am I regressing?
More and more, I'm convinced that the upper-level administration in state departments of education, and the federal Department of Education, have no idea what they're doing. We write new standards, rename courses, come up with new formulas for grading, scoring exams, and scoring teachers, and it hasn't made one grain of difference to how well the actual act of educating children is conducted in classrooms on a day-to-day basis. Most of us get jaded; we go to the meetings and conference days, write stuff on sheets of butcher paper with brightly colored sharpie markers, discuss the results at our tables, and then go back to school the following day without a single thing being changed -- except that the powers-that-be, most of whom haven't seen the inside of a classroom in twenty years, think that they've actually accomplished something.
So, tomorrow, I'll probably be a good boy and go to all the meetings and try to do what they want me to do. Just once before I retire, however, I'd like to actually do what I've been wanting to do for years -- to stand up in one of those meetings and ask the presenter, "How, precisely, is this supposed to benefit my students? I want specifics -- not some airy-fairy 'Refining the standards helps you to frame curriculum development in the context of measurable outcomes.' And if you can't answer that question, get the hell out of here and stop wasting my time and our school district's money."