In 2014, Nebraska adopted new standards in math and English language arts (ELA) that were unique to the Cornhusker State.

In deciding to go its own way, it was well within its rights. But Nebraska also has a responsibility to make sure its math and ELA standards are strong, rigorous and clear. And, on that count, it fell far short.

Academic standards are the foundation on which much of public education rests. They dictate the knowledge and skills that students are expected to master, grade by grade, and communicate those expectations to educators, parents, curriculum writers and other stakeholders. Rightly or wrongly, these benchmarks will shape much of what students do and learn in the coming school year.

Our most recent review, published last month, rated both Nebraska’s English language arts standards and its math standards “weak,” meaning they need “significant revisions.”

Although Nebraska’s elementary math standards are decent enough, the pacing becomes too slow in the higher grades. For example, functions, which are often introduced in eighth grade in other states, are generally deferred until high school in Nebraska.

And the high school standards are particularly uneven, with some important topics treated too briefly and others (such as exponential, logarithmic and trigonometric functions) either deferred to an optional 12th-grade course or omitted entirely. In addition to these issues, individual standards are often vague, and the document as a whole is poorly organized, with little guidance for teachers.

In a similar vein, Nebraska’s English language arts standards lack clear expectations regarding the complexity of the texts to which students should be exposed. For example, there is no mention of commonly used “quantitative” measures, such as Lexile, Flesch-Kincaid or ATOS, or the ranges that are appropriate for each grade level. Similarly, the standard fails to list any specific works of literature and culturally important nonfiction texts that students should read, such as the Declaration of Independence. And, in general, the writing standards focus on processes, as opposed to production, with little attention to the differences between exposition, argumentation and rhetoric.

Fortunately, these shortcomings are fixable. So, instead of kicking the can down the road, Nebraska policymakers should act: In math, increase the pacing of the standards for eighth through 12th grades, organize the high school standards into courses and include an introduction (or summary) for each grade and course.

Similarly, in English language arts, specify the complexity of the texts that students should be exposed to at each grade level, as well as the outstanding literary and informational texts with which they should definitely be familiar. At minimum, they should provide exemplar texts for teacher consideration. Finally, revise the writing standards so they focus on outcomes as opposed to processes.

“Our standards are still written by Nebraska for Nebraska, and our students will still be tested directly on the Nebraska standard," Nebraska Department of Education Curriculum Director, Donlynn Rice, said when the state enacted its current academic standards.

Fair enough. Education is a state issue, so deciding what students need to learn is Nebraska’s prerogative.

But, surely, the state owes it to its young people to set high expectations. Nebraska can do better.

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Michael J. Petrilli and Amber M. Northern are the president and senior vice president for research, respectively, for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


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