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History of Content Area Standards

What Are Content Area Standards?

Content area standards reflect the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn in a given content area.  Because these standards create a framework for teaching and learning, they articulate a trajectory for knowledge acquisition across all grade levels so student learning builds on prior knowledge, becoming more in-depth over time.  By setting clear benchmarks for learning, content area standards provide guidance to teachers as they develop learning experiences.  Additionally, these standards allow teachers to highlight students’ progress towards learning goals, rather than relying on predetermined time and schedule factors (Rubin & Spady, 1984).

How Did Content Standards Develop?

Standards-based education (also known as outcome-based education) has many roots, but the modern push to define what all students should know and be able to do began in the U.S. during the 1970s. During this era, an agenda for “back-to-basics” and minimum competency testing pushed educators to define measurable learning targets required of all students (Raizen, 1998). These initial efforts to define content-specific expectations were led by teachers and local school districts. Eventually, national organizations dedicated to the teaching of specific content areas began to identify content area standards.  The first notable set of national content area standards was published in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. These standards emphasized conceptual understanding and mathematical sense-making and were developed as a backlash to the algorithmic focus of the “back-to-basics” movement. The publication of these national mathematics standards influenced the development of other K–12 content area standards by state-level departments of education, school districts, and other subject-specific organizations (Ferrini-Mundy, 1998).

For two decades, states and school districts across the U.S. have identified content area standards to guide teaching and learning, with nearly every state and local school district adopting a standards-based education system by the year 2000 (Marran 2001; Tucker and Codding 1998).  Content-specific teacher organizations, the National Science Foundation, and the National Governors Association have all published sets of standards that serve as guideposts for state departments of education and writers of local standards and curriculum. While content area standards have many names (e.g. benchmarks, outcomes, goals, expectations, indicators, etc.), all are designed to make clear what knowledge and skills are most important for students to learn in a given content area.

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