Six mistakes to avoid when revising state English language arts standards

Getty Images/EdwardShackleford

Thanks to the widespread adoption of the Common Core, our nation’s English language arts (ELA) standards are stronger today than they were a decade ago. That’s one of the key findings of our latest report, The State of State Standards Post-Common Core. Yet even though the Common Core benchmarks are not perfect, most states that chose to revise them made their ELA standards worse in the process. As other states take up the red pen in the years to come, they should learn from these mistakes.

Below is a summary of the six “persistent failings” that our expert ELA reviewers found in reviewing state ELA standards in 2018.

1. A marked retreat from rigorous quantitative and qualitative expectations for reading and text complexity

Studies show that large percentages of graduating seniors in the United States are unable to read the types of texts that they will encounter in college and the workplace. So it’s a serious problem if standards are vague when it comes to the types and levels of texts that students should be able to navigate.

In light of these concerns, many states have adopted standards that specify the text levels at which students should be able to read—yet others have not. In fact, one of the broadest and most alarming trends that we observed is a marked retreat from such expectations in states that initially adopted the Common Core.

For instance, states such as New York and South Carolina expect students to read “grade-level” texts, but do not specify the quantitative or qualitative criteria that texts must satisfy to be considered grade-level texts. And still other states (such as Kansas and Pennsylvania) don’t set clear text complexity expectations within their standards documents, choosing instead to include resources on text complexity measures elsewhere on their website. Though better than no guidance, such information would be much more helpful if included in or linked directly from the standards.

There are multiple ways that states can make text complexity requirements specific, including adopting quantitative measures of readability. Absent that, they might provide a list of exemplar texts that demonstrate the level of complexity students should be able to handle. Yet not many states are doing that either (see #4). 

2. The absence of disciplinary literacy standards

Each academic discipline—from biology to anthropology—uses language in particular ways to create, disseminate, and evaluate knowledge. For example, the conventions and expectations of scientific journals are different from those of a literary magazine. Yet although many states mention literacy in disciplines or content areas other than language arts, few detail the specific textual features or reading and writing approaches that students must master to read or write sophisticated texts that are appropriate to other disciplines. For example, although students in Kansas are expected to write “for a range of discipline-specific tasks” starting in third grade and to attend to “norms and conventions of the discipline” starting in high school, no other guidance or expectations are provided.

By failing to show how reading, writing, language, and speaking/listening extend beyond the English classroom, some states’ standards leave students ill-prepared to master the advanced literacy skills they will need in college and the workplace, which become increasingly specialized over time.

3. A lack of clear skill progressions between grade levels and/or a lack of strong College and Career Ready standards to anchor skills progressions

In many states, a lack of clear skill progressions between grade levels is a serious issue, especially at the high school level. More specifically, these states (and the Common Core) band their ninth- and tenth-grade and eleventh- and twelfth-grade standards together (thus reducing four years of secondary expectations to two levels). This redundancy across grade bands makes it unclear how and when students should be exposed to progressively more rigorous content.

In addition to such redundancies, many states fail to include strong college- and career-readiness (CCR) standards that “anchor” their K–12 standards by defining the skill level expected of graduates who are (as the term implies) college- and career-ready. For example, although Pennsylvania’s standards claim to “focus on college- and career-readiness,” such capstone standards are never articulated. And Nebraska has just four broad and unhelpfully vague CCR standards, including “students will learn and apply writing skills to communicate.”

4. A lack of guidance on specific types of literary and informational texts and genres/subgenres

Strong ELA standards address both literary and informational reading (e.g., literary nonfiction). However, many states’ academic standards continue to treat literary reading in a general manner, with scant attention paid to the reading and writing of different genres, subgenres, and types of text. And when states do specify the genres that students need to be able to comprehend (e.g., fiction, poetry, drama), they usually offer insufficient guidance on subgenres (e.g., epic poems, satires, parodies). This weakness is also evident in standards on informational text (e.g., speeches, literary criticism). For example, Missouri’s standards do not specify subgenre requirements in the elementary grades or genre reading requirements in grades 6–12 for informational texts. 

In many state standards, a lack of exemplar texts compounds the sparse detail imparted to genres and subgenres. Suggested texts should be offered for all literary, informational, and other discipline-specific materials at all grades. Yet states such as Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, New York, and Virginia do not specify that students be familiar with any particular works of literature, authors, or historical documents—exemplary or otherwise. Although states often stress that these omissions are intended to leave curricular choices to local schools, this lack of guidance makes it harder for teachers to choose grade-level texts.

5. Vague and/or process-writing standards that are not measurable

Many ELA standards still suffer from vague or confusing writing standards that focus on activities, processes (e.g., “brainstorming”), or experiences, as opposed to measurable learning outcomes. For example, Nebraska’s standards note only that writing tasks should be “of increasing length and complexity” starting with third grade.

And the preponderance of Texas’s Composing and Research standards focus on writing processes (e.g., plan a first draft, develop drafts, develop an engaging idea, revise drafts, edit drafts). While such standards ensure that students have certain writing experiences, they fail to specify how well students should be able to write. In contrast, the Common Core’s ten writing standards are primarily dedicated to outcomes rather than writing processes.

6. A lack of critical supporting documents to aid implementation

Most of the issues above are compounded by a lack of ancillary guidance for teachers and students. The need for such supplementary documents varies by state. For example, some states want students to develop grade-level phonological awareness and decoding skills in the primary grades, but do not specify which of these skills should be developed when. Similarly, most states need more information about the determination of text complexity, or to provide lists of exemplar texts representing various genres and disciplines that are appropriate for a given grade level. For states that already provide these resources in an appendix or elsewhere, cross-referencing or otherwise internally referring to them is critical.

***

States have come a long way since the pre-Common-Core era in adopting rigorous ELA standards. For those states to which these weaknesses apply, fixing them would take them that much farther.

For more, read our latest report, The State of State Standards Post-Common Core.

 
 
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.