Repetition and Clarity in Standards

Do “X” in third grade; keep doing “X” in fourth grade. What’s confusing about that?

I happened to be reading Fordham’s review of the old NECAP Reading Grade Level Expections, used by Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and did a double-take on the first paragraph:

Although Rhode Island offers grade-by-grade standards, many of these are repeated across grades, sowing confusion about what students are expected to master at each grade level. For example, “Identifying possible motives of main characters” is a literary text standard in both grades 2 and 3. At grades 4 and 5, it becomes “Identifying causes or effects, including possible motives of characters,” which does not change the fundamental expectation, nor make clear what other kinds of causes and effects the standards developers might have in mind.

I should note that the Fordham Institute is essentially the only organization with the wherewithal and patience to rate the academic standards of the US states, so they are influential and frequently cited, by default.

The Common Core Standards-Setting Criteria have a similar concern:

Grade-by-grade standards: The standards will have limited repetition across the grades or grade spans to help educators align instruction to the standards.

How, exactly, is it confusing to state that the same standard applies at two different grade levels? How does it make it difficult to align instruction?

This is particularly baffling because Fordham, the Common Core Standards, and, to a lesser extent, the NECAP all call for increasing text complexity across grade levels, so that is sufficient to make sure the rigor of the task is increasing. You could talk about the Big Bad Wolf’s motivation in second grade (that’s the actual NECAP example), Tom Sawyer’s motivation in eighth grade, and Hamlet’s in 12th. You don’t need to change the standard itself at all and the whole thing would make perfect sense. Other high-performing countries have no qualms about taking that approach.

Which is not to say that NECAP R-5.6 (the standard Fordham cites) is not a mess, but Fordham’s further criticism is equally puzzling:

At grades 4 and 5, it becomes “Identifying causes or effects, including possible motives of characters,” which does not change the fundamental expectation…

Of course it changes the fundamental expectation, especially at this level where character motivations are not necessarily very complex (save the princess, eat some piggies, get home safely, etc.) and often assumed from genre convention.


Fordham has also played a key authorial role in a set of standards contemporary to the NECAP standards they’re critiquing — the American Diploma Project standards. In fact, Rhode Island was among the states endorsing alignment with the American Diploma Project’s goals, so all these documents and organizations are more closely interrelated than you might think.

Their character motivation standard for fourth and fifth grade looks like this:

A.1.4.2.4-5.c Identify characters’ motivations and conflicts in relatively uncomplicated literary texts. For example, identify the characters’ motivations in Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War. (ADP H4 and ADP H8)

It applies to both fourth and fifth grade, but I guess it is easier to align instruction to the standard because teachers don’t have to see it typed twice, unlike the confusing NECAP?

Here is the grade 6-8 version:

A.1.4.2.6-8.c Identify and describe characters’ features and relationships in more challenging literary texts. (ADP H4 and ADP H8)

It is simply not clear to me that this version of A.1.4.2.c is the same “fundamental expectation” in grades 6-8. Are “motivations and conflicts” now just some of the “features?” How can identifying motivation evolve into to cause and effect in the NECAP and features and relationships in the ADP? Other countries don’t have to confront these metaphysical problems because they don’t try to shoehorn their curricular outcomes into these narrow strands across a long range of grades. It is simply unnecessary.

If you want to talk about redundancy, why is it necessary or helpful to constantly interject vague qualifiers like “more challenging literary texts” into the standards when you already have extensive and detailed descriptions of the textual complexity at each grade level?

I disagree with Fordham on many matters of educational philosophy and pedagogy, but on those issues, I at least understand their point of view. On some of these standards design issues, I just don’t get it at all. If you want clarity and precision in standards, trying to draw out minute distinctions across grade levels by throwing in a few adjectives is not helpful. I don’t know why they think it is. Trying to create long sequences of tasks that are all different yet somehow fundamentally address the same underlying skill is like an exercise in quantum physics or Trinitarian theology. Printing the same standard on three different grade level pages is not significantly different than printing it on one page spanning three grade levels.


I did check to see what Fordham said about Vermont and New Hampshire, since they also used the same NECAP Grade Level Expectations.

For Vermont, they note:

Some of Vermont’s standards are clear and specific. Generally, however, they suffer from repetition and a confounding organization that makes it extremely difficult to track expectations across grade levels. Some repetition is tolerable in state standards if clear attempts have been made to differentiate expectations at milestone grades and the Vermont standards sometimes do this. More often, however, they are repeated verbatim across many levels, such as this writing process standard that is found in every grade:
Students use prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and critiquing to produce final drafts of written products (grades 1-12)

Like Rhode Island, Vermont was scored 1/3 for “Clarity and Specificity.” Vermont scored 2/7 for “Content and Rigor” one less than Rhode Island’s version of the same standards. Both overall were given a “D” rating placing them “among the worst in the country.”

For New Hampshire, the issue did not come up, and they received 2/3 for “Clarity and Specificity,” and a 4/7 for “Content and Rigor,” and a 6/10 total for a solidly “mediocre” “C.”

This, of course, does not say much for the “rigor” of Fordham’s process.