Does Standards-Based Reform Work?

The essence of the standards and accountability reform movement is that by expecting more of students, their achievement levels will go up. Advocates on the other side, though, believe in focusing on the school environment and overall student well-being. In a new report, researchers from the Center for American Progress examined the current state of the education system, focusing on results from the NAEP and the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, to determine the impact of the accountability movement and what they believe are the next steps for the reform movement. They found that “many reform-oriented states and school districts are making clear gains in student achievement.”

“The states and districts that have boosted achievement offer valuable lessons to other communities seeking to improve the learning and achievement of all their students—including students of color and students from low-income families,” said Ulrich Boser, Senior Fellow at CAP and one of the report’s authors, in a press release. “When it comes to addressing the nation’s education crisis, there is a growing consensus that higher standards can help drive up achievement.” 

Key findings

  • Some states and districts are making clear gains. In Massachusetts, fourth-graders scoring proficient or above in math jumped from 41 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2013.
  • The state and local policy environment matters. Many of the cities and states, like DC, that have embraced standards-based reform have seen clear gains.
  • In many locations, students of color and students living in poverty still have extraordinarily low achievement. According to the research, an estimated 120 black students in fourth grade score proficient or above on the NAEP mathematics assessment in Detroit.
  • When it comes to students performing at the advanced level, outcomes are also rock bottom. In the entire United States, only about 123,000 eighth-graders—or 3 percent—scored at the advanced level in reading on the NAEP exams.


  • Implement the higher Common Core standards
  • Promote transparency and high-quality data, including the aligned Common Core assessments
  • Invest in rigorous curricula and high-quality instructional material
  • Ensure students have access to high-quality teachers
  • Promote fiscal equity

Read A Look at the Education Crisis - Tests, Standards, and the Future of American Education, by Ulrich Boser, Perpetual Baffour, and Steph Vela, Center for American Progress (January 2016).

Assessment and Accountability
Education Policy
Educational Standards