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Appropriately Challenging

Ensuring that content area standards are appropriately challenging is key when setting high expectations that are developmentally appropriate. Standards must build in complexity so that by the end of grade 12, students are prepared for postsecondary education and the workforce. At the same time, it must be considered that students—especially young children—develop skills and conceptual understandings at different rates (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007). Indicators must be carefully sequenced to meet the rigor within the context of typical human development.

Standards and indicators outline the level of thinking that is appropriate for the content and expected developmental level. The degree of rigor in content area standards typically builds over time, yet even young children are capable of in-depth analysis of topics that are very familiar to them. When addressing the academic performance of U.S. students on international assessments, authors of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1997) state that the U.S. “preoccupation with breadth rather than depth, with quantity rather than quality, probably affects how well U.S. students perform in relation to their counterparts in other countries” (p. 2). To avoid this pitfall, content area standards must identify only the content that is critical for students to learn, and students should be required to apply critical thinking to that content.

Moreover, content area standards often include a subset of process skills. These skills describe processes that students use to think critically, apply learning, solve problems, and conduct investigations or research. Mastery of these skills is associated with greater student engagement and higher academic achievement (Cobern, Schuster, Adams,, 2010; Harlen, 2000). Embedding process skills within standards and indicators ensures that these processes are considered when developing instructional strategies and practices. In Nebraska, process skills are often represented by the Nebraska Career Readiness Standards. The knowledge and skills within the Nebraska Career Readiness Standards are embedded within all content area standards highlighting a true intentionality to develop “college and career ready standards.”

In addition to the Nebraska Career Readiness Standards, content areas may have an articulated set of content-specific process skills essential to student learning and understanding. While there is substantial overlap between these content-specific process skills and the Nebraska Career Readiness Standards, some skills are unique. For example, in science, an essential skill is asking questions for science and defining problems for engineering. This skill aligns with the Nebraska Career Readiness Standard “Applies Appropriate Academic and Technical Skills” but is specific to science. As such, it is important that content area standards identify and articulate these content-specific skills within their standards.

This information was taken from NDE’s Content Area Standards Reference Guide.  The reference guide, including the references mentioned above, is located here.