A state’s academic learning standards not only define what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, they signal a society’s values. Part tradition, part research, part social construct, and part political process, they define what we collectively believe the next generation of students must know not only to succeed personally but to contribute to our civic life and be prepared to solve the problems of tomorrow.
State standards impact the entire system, from curriculum and teaching to annual assessments. In a diverse society, where students, families, and educators reflect different cultures, backgrounds, and life experiences, we have a responsibility to ensure our entire educational system reflects that diversity. Local voices and local agency are the answer.
That is why academic standards are revisited often (typically every five to seven years) to allow regular input from communities across the state to inform how our schools are educating students. Revising academic standards is a significant endeavor. In addition to curriculum experts, states typically engage local school boards, educator professional organizations, parent groups, higher education institutions, legislative committees on education, the governor’s office, chambers of commerce, workforce readiness councils, and the public at large to arrive at a shared definition of what gets taught. This democratic process reflects how strongly we as a nation believe education is a local endeavor that must reflect our communities’ values and principles.
Decisions about what gets taught in mathematics may seem relatively straightforward, but even foundational mathematical concepts like numbers and operations can be subject to intense debate. When are students ready to learn fractions? Should students simply memorize and practice mathematical procedures or engage in inquiry and problem solving to deepen their conceptual understanding? (The U.S. emphasizes the former; Japan emphasizes the latter.) These were the debates that fueled the math wars throughout the 1990s and beyond, and research shows that these differences in teaching practice have their roots in national cultural traditions.
Decisions about what gets taught in the English language arts and social studies curricula are even more fraught, because books, histories, and other texts are an expression of a society’s norms and values. Authors write from their own cultural perspective as they tell stories (including histories), represent people, establish facts, and argue opinion. Which authors should students read? Whose histories should be told? Attempts this past year to ban the teaching of The New York Times 1619 Project, an initiative that seeks to reframe our country’s history by recognizing the contributions of Black Americans and the long-lasting consequences of slavery, illustrate how the adoption of academic learning standards, textbooks, and curriculum programs is in fact a political exercise—because it is through these choices that we shape the perspectives, norms, and values of each generation.
Assessments amplify the choices that communities make when deciding what gets taught, because they inevitably focus limited instructional time on the learning standards that get tested. This is why federal peer review of states’ test blueprints requires careful and thoughtful coverage of the state learning standards and why states typically engage educators from across the state to approve the test blueprint. As with learning standards, test design relies on an open and intentional process of stakeholder engagement to inform what gets tested, because we collectively believe that local communities should have a voice in setting priorities for what students learn.
New Meridian furthers this commitment to including local educators’ voices in the design of the assessment through our test development committees, which include teachers from across our states who help select passages and review test questions and forms. We are also intentional about the composition of these committees; diverse committee members bring their diverse lived experiences to the selection of authors and passages and help uncover blind spots and implicit biases that may be present in the passages students are expected to read and analyze. These careful reviews not only help ensure that a test does not favor one group of students over another, they also help ensure the authors and topics reflect the diversity of the students who take our tests, signaling that all cultures merit serious academic engagement.
At New Meridian, we are working intentionally with our states to give voice and agency to local educators in the design and development of our assessments, and to ensure that diverse voices are at the table. By incorporating diverse authors and texts, we both affirm and stretch students to think critically through the lens of others—a critical practice that broadens perspectives, develops important skills for engaging in civil discourse, and prepares all students to thrive in a rich, multicultural society.