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National School Curriculum Standards

Traditionally, local governments determine what to teach to students in their district. Many people still favor this approach because it allows local governments and teachers the flexibility to teach the skills necessary for their particular area.

However, there is a growing trend to standardize primary and secondary education. The issue of standards for learning and teaching has developed in the United States as policymakers, legislators, educators, parents, and community leaders have all shown an increasing concern with students' achievement levels. The word "standards" has been used in many ways during public discussions. Sometimes the term has been used to represent established levels of achievement; in other cases it refers to commonly shared sets of academic subject content, such as those embodied in state curriculum guidelines.

This article examines some of the issues concerning the standardization of school curricula.

The Current State of National Curricula

As of now, there is no national curriculum which all school districts are required to teach. However, independent organizations, such the National Conference of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) have created model curricula which textbook authors and school districts can choose to incorporate. These "voluntary standards" exist for mathematics, science, language arts, fine arts, social science, technology and physical education.

Many high schools offer "advanced placement" or AP courses. Although these are intended to be a way for grade school students to learn college level material in exchange for college credit, they functionally standardize the curriculum for a particular high school course. All AP students must take the same AP test at the end of the course in order to gain college credit. AP course teachers receive a recommended syllabus. They are not required to teach everything on the syllabus, but may choose to do so if they believe it will help the students learn the material and earn a high score on the test.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is a nationally administered test which has become known as the "Nation's Report Card." The Nation Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) administers NAEP to schools throughout the U.S. which are selected so that the students taking the test are representative of the nation's student body. The tests measure students' mastery of mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, U.S. history, and beginning in 2014, in Technology and Engineering Literacy at the end of grades 4, 8, and 12.

NCES does not require participating schools to teach any sort of curriculum. However, a state's NAEP score offers insight to local policymakers about the effectiveness of their educational system. Many factors go into a school's effectiveness. One of these factors is a school's curriculum. For example, a rural school may choose to reduce its fine arts curriculum in favor of a vocational course on agriculture. While agriculture is a relevant subject to that school district, it is not tested on the NAEP and that school will be penalized for its failure to teach fine arts effectively, even though the school is otherwise equal to its urban counterparts. Offering standardized tests therefore encourages schools to teach the subjects tested.

State and Local Influence

Curricular guidelines have been used to set standards in many states and have been linked to state-administered achievement tests. But standards in the United States also include more informal means by which schools maintain and promote the desired levels of achievement for their students. These achievement levels for schools and for students have usually been extrapolated from community expectations, and local communities continue to greatly influence curriculum and instructional decisions made at the school level. In the end, school curriculum standards are partly a result of local decisions, such as those governing the selection of textbooks and those affecting a school's policy on the promotion or retention of students.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on School Funding and Competency Testing.

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