Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 3

The Myth of Equal Content

Uniform assessment will only improve education if we ensure equitable access to learning opportunities.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

In the United States, we have long regarded public schools as the great equalizer, providing all students with access to the same high-quality education regardless of their ethnicity, family background, or socioeconomic status. The ideal is that any student willing to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities schooling provides can go as far as his or her abilities allow.
Indeed, U.S. society delights in the stories of those who triumph over adversity through their own talent and effort. Such stories affirm the myth of American individualism. Correspondingly, we view failure as the result of a lack of effort, talent, motivation, application, or perseverance. In the case of schooling, we assume that unequal achievement outcomes are not the result of unequal access to education opportunities, but rather the result of an unequal distribution of individual abilities and ambition.
Is this assumption justified? Or is it simply a satisfying myth that eases the national conscience?

Unequal Access to Content…

The U.S. education system is, in fact, not one system but at least 50 different state systems, each with its own set of standards establishing what students should learn and what teachers should teach. This every-state-for-itself approach leads to far too many topics being packed into standards, as illustrated by the curriculum standards from two U.S. districts that participated in the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). In one district, the curriculum calls for students to be introduced to concepts of perimeter, area, and volume in 4th grade as one topic among 14 that are to be taught that year. This district then focuses more deeply on this topic in grades 6–8. In the other district, concepts of perimeter, area, and volume are intended to be taught every year from 1st grade through 8th grade as one of 17 to 25 topics to be covered each year.
Our examination of state mathematics and science standards, conducted in the context of an international comparison of such documents, found that both individually and as a set, U.S. standards were "a mile wide and an inch deep" (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1997, p. 122). U.S. standards covered many more topics at each grade level than was typical in other countries. Particularly in the early years, the expectations expressed in U.S. state standards far exceeded those in the countries that performed best on the TIMSS 8th grade assessment (Schmidt, Wang, & McKnight, 2005). U.S. textbooks followed the same pattern, earning the distinction of ranking first in the world in terms of their scope, size, and weight.
This broad, encyclopedic nature of standards and textbooks yields disparate classroom emphases. Because the time available for teaching and learning in the school year is finite, teachers must do triage among the laundry list of topics included in standards and textbooks. Not surprisingly, in the face of documents that embody incoherent and unrealistic intentions, these highly trained professionals teach substantially different content—often even within the same state, district, or school.
We analyzed teachers' reports of the relative instructional emphases they placed on a range of mathematics and science topics in 13 U.S. states and 14 U.S. school districts that participated as "countries" in the 1999 TIMSS. We found that across the states and districts, the topics taught in 8th grade differed by nearly a year as measured by the international grade placement (a measure of the relative grade level at which topics are typically covered internationally) (Schmidt, Wang, & McKnight, 2005).
Another factor exacerbating U.S. students' unequal access to mathematics is the prevalence of tracking in middle school mathematics. Analyzing the forms that listed all the mathematics classes taught within each U.S. school participating in the 1995 TIMSS, we found that the vast majority of U.S. 8th graders attended schools that tracked students into three types of 8th grade mathematics: regular, prealgebra, and algebra (Cogan, Schmidt, & Wiley, 2001). The self-reports of teachers whose students participated in the 1995 TIMSS show that the relative grade level of the content in these three types of courses differed widely. In schools that tracked students, the mean international grade placement in algebra classrooms was more than a year higher than that in regular 8th grade mathematics classrooms. Whether we consider the title of the course offered or the more refined international grade placement indicator, U.S. schools clearly provided unequal access to 8th grade mathematics content.

… Leads to Unequal Learning Outcomes

Media coverage of TIMSS results usually compares the United States as a whole with other participating countries and decries the disappointing picture of decline as students progress through school, with U.S. 4th graders performing above the international mean, 8th graders performing at about the international mean, and 12th graders performing below it (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996, 1997, 1998).
This coverage commonly doesn't highlight the fact that student performance within the United States varies greatly from state to state and from district to district. Although U.S. 8th grade performance was the same as the international mean in the 1999 TIMSS benchmark study, the performance of the 13 U.S. states and 14 U.S. school districts that participated as "countries" in the study virtually spanned the performance range (Mullis et al., 2001). Seven states and eight districts performed significantly higher than the international mean, three districts performed significantly lower than the international mean, and the rest scored at about the international mean. Thus, U.S. states and districts differ not only in the access to mathematics content that they offer students, but also in their student performance outcomes.
One of the most important findings from our analysis of the 1995 TIMSS (Schmidt et al., 2001) was that achievement differences from country to country were significantly related to what was taught. This conclusion was possible because of the rich portrait of math and science instruction available from the 1995 TIMSS curriculum analysis. For each country, we looked at the intended content (what officials intended for teachers to teach) and theenacted content (what teachers actually taught in their classrooms). In most countries, we determined the intended content by looking at the national curriculum (or, in the handful of countries without a national curriculum, by looking at other formal statements of intended content at the regional or local level). In all the countries, we determined the enacted content by surveying teachers about what they had covered.
Analysis of these rich curriculum data, along with our more curriculum-sensitive measures of student achievement, revealed that the mathematics content teachers covered in their classrooms was significantly related to their students' performance even when researchers adjusted this relationship for student background factors (ethnicity, parent education level, socioeconomic status, and so on). This relationship was evident at every level—classroom, district, and state.
Schooling does make a difference in student achievement. Specifically, the curriculum itself—what is taught—makes a huge difference.

Need for Curriculum-Sensitive Assessment

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) explicitly affirmed the fundamental democratic goal of schooling in the United States. In the wake of this legislation, issues of suitable standards for all students and equitable access to adequate learning opportunities have acquired a new urgency in education reform. States and individual districts are being compelled to make explicit what it means for all students to have equitable opportunities to learn essential and challenging content (Achieve, 2002).
NCLB brought attention to some important issues, such as the need to establish high learning standards for all students. But the fundamental flaw in NCLB is the disconnect between the assessments that are used to determine education outcomes and the content standards that guide and inform classroom instruction and learning.
Using the 20 specific mathematics topic scores we created from the 1995 TIMSS data, for example, we found that when students were given access to specific curricular content, there was a significant benefit for student performance in those content areas (Schmidt et al., 2001). The total mathematics score, however, was insensitive to important differences in curricular emphasis (Schmidt, Jakwerth, & McKnight, 1998).
Is this an important distinction, or is it just another dart to throw at the accountability endeavor? Clearly, we believe that this distinction is fundamentally important. Unless assessments are sensitive to important differences in instructional content coverage, student achievement gaps can be misattributed to individual background factors that are not within schools' control. For example, school districts in which most parents have a college education tend to have higher levels of student performance. But also important—and within the control of schools—is the fact that in such districts, the content standards and the instructional content coverage tend to be more rigorous, especially in the middle grades.

Equal Curriculum Access

The real issue behind differences in student performance is unequal access to a high-quality, challenging curriculum. In multiple analyses conducted with international data across countries and with U.S. data across states and districts, we've demonstrated the significant relationship between classroom instruction and student achievement. Access to instructional content is always more strongly related to differences in student performance than are the student background factors often cited to explain such differences.
In the United States, we have a much better track record in ensuring uniform, equitable assessment than in ensuring uniform, equitable access to learning opportunities. Our current accountability and assessment system is disconnected from our plethora of content standards. We assume equality of content coverage and use assessments that are not curriculum sensitive, which then reveal unequal outcomes—leading many to believe that students who fail do so because of their own lack of effort, talent, and motivation.
Fixing this problem will require coordinated efforts among teachers, administrators, and education policymakers. It will require creating challenging, clear content standards to guide classroom instruction and learning; creating curriculum-sensitive assessments that are specific to these standards; and measuring the actual content of classroom instruction. Without all three, we will never be able to address inequities in access or in student performance.

Achieve. (2002). No child left behind: Meeting challenges, seizing opportunities, improving achievement (Achieve Policy Brief No. 5). Washington, DC: Author.

Cogan, L. S., Schmidt, W. H., & Wiley, D. E. (2001). Who takes what math and in which track? Using TIMSS to characterize U.S. students' eighth-grade mathematics learning opportunities. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(4), 323–341.

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Gonzalez, E. J., O'Connor, K. M., Chrostowski, S. J., Gregory, K. D., et al. (2001). Mathematics benchmarking report TIMSS 1999—Eighth grade: Achievement for U.S. states and districts in an international context. Chestnut Hill, MA: International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1996). Pursuing excellence: A study of U.S. eighth-grade mathematics and science teaching, learning, curriculum, and achievement in international context (NCES 97-198). Washington, DC: Author.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1997). Pursuing excellence: A study of U.S. fourth-grade mathematics and science achievement in international context (NCES 97-255). Washington, DC: Author.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (1998). Pursuing excellence: A study of U.S. twelfth-grade mathematics and science achievement in international context(NCES 98-049). Washington, DC: Author.

Schmidt, W. H., Jakwerth, P. M., & McKnight, C. C. (1998). Curriculum-sensitive assessment: Content does make a difference. International Journal of Educational Research, 29, 503–527.

Schmidt, W. H., McKnight, C. C., Houang, R. T., Wang, H. A., Wiley, D. E., Cogan, L. S., et al. (2001). Why schools matter: A cross-national comparison of curriculum and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schmidt, W. H., McKnight, C., & Raizen, S. (1997). A splintered vision: An investigation of U.S. science and mathematics education. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Schmidt, W. H., Wang, H. A., & McKnight, C. C. (2005). Curriculum coherence: An examination of U.S. mathematics and science content standards from an international perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(5), 525–529.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 110022.jpg
Multiple Measures
Go To Publication