Clarifying what students should be learning does not necessarily translate into higher achievement in the classroom. That is the finding in a new research study conducted by Joshua Goodman, assistant professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.

All states have documents describing what students should be learning in various academic subjects at various ages. Goodman sought to determine whether increasing the quality of those written standards leads to improved student achievement. The study comes at a time when many leaders are intent on improving educational outcomes through enhanced student preparation, testing and measurement.

“Given the immense amount of time and money being spent on such efforts, it is surprising how little evidence policymakers and educators have on the impact of such standards on student achievement,” Goodman writes. “Little is known…about how the quality of written standards translates into improvements in curriculum, pedagogy and student achievement.”

Goodman examined data on state-level student achievement between 1994-2011, correlating achievement shifts with corresponding shifts in the quality of each state’s written standards. He concluded that changes in standards have little impact on overall student achievement.

“Improved math standards do, however, raise the math achievement of 8th graders, particularly for low-scoring students,” he writes. “Given the known weaknesses of U.S. middle schools, this result suggests that standards may be beneficial in settings where achievement would otherwise be low.”

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