States’ English Standards Still Need Improvement, Study Says

Published March 1, 2005

Twenty states earned As or Bs for their English instruction standards, according to a Thomas B. Fordham Foundation report published in January. While that performance represented improvement over a 2000 analysis, there “is no cause for satisfaction,” the study’s author reports.

The foundation published a pair of studies in January that provide a state-by-state assessment of subject matter content standards for core academic subjects in American public schools. The first dealt with standards for English and related subjects; the second, with standards for mathematics. (See related article on this page.) The reports’ publication marks the third time in eight years that Fordham has conducted this review.

According to the English report, “The State of State English Standards 2005,” many states have improved their English standards since 2000, but others have “disturbing shortcomings,” according to Chester Finn Jr., Fordham’s president and the author of forewords to both studies.

Author Sandra Stotsky, who also conducted the foundation’s two earlier studies of English standards, wrote, “No state should be content with a C–which almost half of them received–and there is no excuse for the deficiencies that led to a D or F in 2005 for Alaska, Connecticut, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming, whether or not they increased their overall grade point averages in 2005.” Massachusetts garnered Stotsky’s top grade.

Stotsky rated state English standards on a four-point scale for each of 34 criteria. Letter grades for a particular state were issued based on point averages.

Michigan “Improves” to D

In the 2005 study, Michigan’s K-8 Grade Level Content Expectations earned a D–a minor improvement over 2000, when it posted an F. Stotsky criticizes Michigan’s current and past approach for containing “a large number” of standards that are “not clear, specific or measurable” and for often being “vague, obscure or pretentious statements.”

Stotsky also pointed out content deficiencies, “the most serious [of which] is the lack of a key group of authors, works, literary periods and literary traditions to outline the essential substantive content of the secondary school English curriculum.”

Michigan’s final “grade point average” in the study, 1.41, was a full grade point below the national average. Only four states–Wyoming, Washington, Connecticut, and Montana–scored lower.

Standards Established Slowly

Both of the new Fordham studies note that the idea of “spelling out” what kids should learn in school was birthed in response to “A Nation at Risk,” the watershed 1983 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. That report documented a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools, and in the two decades since, “standards-based reforms” have gained substantial traction.

Still, by 1997, when Fordham published its first “State English Standards,” only slightly more than half the states–28–had standards in place. Just three years later, by the time Fordham published its second evaluation of English standards, that number had risen to 48.

Currently, all states but Iowa have English standards. The increase has resulted mainly from pressure from the federal government, according to Stotsky. She writes, “The standards world experienced a seismic jolt from the federal No Child Left Behind Act,” because the law tied standards-based accountability to funding.

Policymakers Challenged

As Bush is expected to expand the scope of the No Child Left Behind Act in his new term, thereby increasing pressure for better state standards, Finn is concerned policymakers might not step up to the plate, because doing so would mean “tangling with university faculty, entrenched bureaucracies, and powerful unions.”

Finn worries “many state officials would rather avoid such tussles, even though their schoolchildren will eventually pay the price.”

The Fordham studies are meant to help citizens and policymakers evaluate the effectiveness of their state’s standards and compare them to standards elsewhere in the nation.

Brian L. Carpenter ([email protected]) is director of the leadership development initiative for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan.

For more information …

Both Fordham reports are available online at, or by calling the Fordham Foundation at 410/634-2400.