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March 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 6

The McREL Database: A Tool for Constructing Local Standards

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McREL's compilation of data from the national reports will be a valuable resource for schools and districts as they develop local content-area standards.

As standards take on a central role in school reform, American educators at the state and local levels have a clear charge: create standards that can be used in today's schools, but move those schools to new levels of achievement. This is clearly stated in the report of the National Education Standards and Improvement Council to the National Education Goals Panel: It is critically important that a core set of standards be defined that makes sense when communicated to the public and to teachers, students, and school systems. Both NESIC and the states have the responsibility to see that these standards make sense together. Cumulatively, the standards must be feasible to implement within the daily and long-term operation of schools, and they should be adequate to achieve the purposes of schools and the premise of American education (NESIC 1993, p. 5).
In creating such statements, schools and districts frequently turn to the “standards documents” from the various subject specific organizations. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, has published Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 1989), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science has issued Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993).

A Difficult Task Made Easier

Constructing standards from these documents, however, is not a simple matter. To articulate standards that reflect local priorities, and that “make sense together” as suggested by the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, schools and districts will need to invest a great deal of work. For one thing, the various documents vary conceptually in a number of important ways. That is, the manner in which standards are described by a document in mathematics, let's say, might be quite different from the manner in which standards are defined in a document that focuses on science.
  • Benchmarks for Science Literacy by the American Association for the Advancement of Science 1993.
  • Mathematics Assessment Framework by the National Assessment of Educational Progress 1992.
  • What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000 by the Secretary's Commission on achieving Necessary Skills 1991.
  • Workplace Basics: The Essential Skills Employers Want by Carnevale, Gaines, and Meltzer 1990.
In short, establishing standards based on the national documents means that schools or districts must first identify what they mean by standards, as well as the format that their standards will take. Next, they must systematically analyze all the documents and, then, translate the information into a format and conceptual base compatible with their own. Fortunately, some help is available.
With funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) in Aurora, Colorado, is currently analyzing all relevant documents—standards drafts as well as relevant subject-area materials—across the various content areas. The end result, we hope, will be a database that schools and districts can easily access.
From the outset, we realized that whatever position we took regarding the nature and function of standards would automatically rule out other positions. Consequently, we set out to define standards in such a way that even a school or district that might take a differing position on standards would still find our work useful. We determined at least three key issues on which our position needed to be very clear: (1) content versus curriculum standards, (2) content versus performance standards, and (3) the need for levels of standards.

Content Versus Curriculum Standards

A number of documents that we analyzed combined content and curriculum standards, yet did not distinguish between the two. In simple terms, a content standard describes what students should know and be able to do; a curriculum standard describes what should take place in the classroom. Specifically, curriculum standards address instructional technique or recommended activities as opposed to knowledge and skill in themselves.
  1. Use estimation to check the reasonableness of results.
  2. Describe, model, draw, and classify shapes.
Element a describes a skill or an ability that a person might use to solve a real-life problem. For example, you might use estimation to check the reasonableness of your calculations about how much wood you would need to buy to build a fence around your backyard. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine many situations—whether academic or day-to-day—that would require the ability to model, draw, or classify shapes (element b). Rather, this kind of activity is best described as an instructional device to help students understand shapes or to provide a way for them to demonstrate their understanding of shapes. Therefore, it is a curriculum standard.
Our model emphasizes content standards because they describe the goals for individual student achievement, while curriculum standards provide information that contributes to reaching these goals. Additionally, curriculum standards—which usually focus on activities or techniques—if interpreted rigidly, could leave teachers with little or no room for instructional diversity.

Content or Performance Standards?

A significant controversy within the developing science of standards-based education is whether standards should be content- or performance-based. Those who take a clear content position describe standards in terms of knowledge and skill to be acquired; those who take a performance position define standards in terms of tasks in which students demonstrate knowledge and skill.
Where the content position focuses on clearly defined knowledge and skill, the performance position presumes that knowledge or skill is defined if it is embedded in a task, even though this task must be a narrower application of the knowledge. A content standard in science, for example, might specify that students should understand the characteristics of ecosystems on the earth's surface. The performance standard for that piece of knowledge would specify the level of accuracy and the facts, concepts, and generalization about ecosystems on the earth's surface that a student must understand to be judged as having obtained a suitable level of achievement. The performance standard would also put that knowledge in a specific context by stating a form for presenting the information—for example, an essay, a simulation, or an oral report with accompanying graphics. As the National Education Standards and Improvement Council notes: Performance standards indicate “both the nature of the evidence (such as an essay, mathematical proof, scientific experiment, project exam, or combination of these) required to demonstrate that content standards have been met and the quality of student performance that will be deemed acceptable....” (NESIC 1993, p. 22).
We believe that performance standards are a critical component of a comprehensive standards-based approach to schooling. Performance standards and content standards, in fact, have a hand-in-glove relationship. In short, even though the McREL database focuses on content standards, we assume that schools and districts can and will use it as the basis for constructing complementary sets of performance standards.

The Need for Levels of Standards

  • Understand[s] the arts in relation to history and cultures.
  • Know[s] the causes of the Civil War.
The history example is obviously more specific than the one from the arts. In addition, the history document provides a much more detailed level of subcomponent information for its standards than does the arts document. The level of specificity in which standards are articulated is critical, because the level of generality adopted by a school or district will affect the level of detail within the standards, the kind of comprehensiveness the standards aim for, and the number of standards produced.
  • understands characteristics of the real number system and its subsystems,
  • understands the relationship between roots and exponents, and
  • models numbers using three-dimensional regions.
  • understands the relationship of decimals to whole numbers,
  • understands the relationship of fractions to decimals and whole numbers,
  • understands the basic difference between odd versus even numbers,
  • understands the basic characteristics of mixed numbers, and
  • models numbers using number lines.
Benchmarks, then, describe the specific developmental components of the general domain identified by a standard. Theoretically, benchmarks could be identified at all grade levels. The trend, however, seems to be toward a few key levels. Our database provides benchmarks at four levels, roughly corresponding to grades K–2 (Level I), 3–5 (Level II), 6–8 (Level III), and 9–12 (Level IV).

The Format of the McREL Database

  • Science: 34 standards, 507 benchmarks
  • Mathematics: 8 standards, 125 benchmarks
  • U.S. History: 37 standards, 143 benchmarks; World History: 31 standards, 138 benchmarks; Historical Perspective: 1 standard, 12 benchmarks
  • Geography: 18 standards, 251 benchmarks
  • Communication and Information Processing: 5 standards, 125 benchmarks
  • Thinking and Reasoning: 6 standards, 68 benchmarks
  • Working with Others: 5 standards, 48 benchmarks
  • Self-Regulation: 5 standards, 56 benchmarks
  • Life Work: 7 standards, 68 benchmarks
  • Understands criteria that give a region identity (for example, central focus of a region, physical and cultural characteristics). (NI,56–57;SE,18;DI,10.3.1)
Obviously, this brief illustration does not thoroughly explain the coding system used in the McREL database. It does, however, provide a sense of the level of detail present within that database. Specifically, using the McREL system, schools or districts can identify benchmarks and the national documents in which those benchmarks are implicitly or explicitly stated. Additionally, they can identify the interrelationship between benchmark elements.

Setting Up a Standards-Based System

Ultimately, McREL has created a tool that schools and districts can use to construct their own standards, benchmarks, and an accompanying set of performance tasks. Although many complex issues are involved in setting up a standards-based system, we have identified four key questions to consider:
  1. How many standards and benchmarks will we articulate? In our work thus far, we have reported 1,541 benchmarks embedded within 157 standards. Clearly, a school or district could not expect a student to demonstrate competence in all of these (although they may be a part of instruction). Sheer numbers would make such a system untenable. Given that there are 180 days in the school year and 13 years of schooling (assuming students go to kindergarten), that leaves only 2,340 school days available to students. To address all benchmarks in the McREL database, students would have to learn and demonstrate mastery in a benchmark every 1.5 school days, or more than three benchmarks every week. Obviously, a school or district will have to select from the standards and benchmarks. A reasonable number of benchmarks is about 600, distributed in roughly the following way: Level I: K–2: 75Level II: 3–5: 125Level III: 6–8: 150Level IV: 9–12: 250
  2. Will we consider all selected benchmarks necessary to demonstrate competence in a standard? One way to alleviate the problem of too many benchmarks is to consider benchmarks as exemplars rather than necessary components of a standard. Using this option, students would be held accountable for demonstrating mastery of a sample of the benchmarks within a level for a given standard. To illustrate, consider the science standard and its related benchmarks in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Sample Science Standard with Accompanying Benchmarks from the McREL Database

Understands the forms energy takes, its transformations from one form to another, and its relationship to matter.

Level 1

  • Knows that the sun applies heat and light to earth. (CI,61;SE,23)

  • Understands that an energy source, like a battery within a circuit, can produce light, sound, and heat. (CE,68;SE,23)

  • Understands that an object in a beam of light can cast a shadow, while other objects might bend or transmit the light. (CI,73;SE,23)

Level II

  • Knows that things that give off light often give off heat. (2E,62;CI,73;SE,30)

  • Understands that mechanical and electrical machines give off heat; that light, sound, heat, and sparks can be produced in electrical circuits with batteries as an energy source. (2E,62;CI,61;SE,23)

  • Knows that when warmer things are put with cooler ones, the warm ones lose heat and the cool ones gain it until they are all at the same temperature. (2E,62;CR,67)

Level III

  • Understands that energy comes in different forms, such as light, thermal, electrical, kinetic (motion), and sound, which can be changed from one form to another. (2E,63;CE,62;SE,29)

  • Understands that whenever the amount of energy in one place or form diminishes, the amount in other places or forms increases by the same amount. (2E,63;SE,35)

  • Understands that energy comes to the earth from the sun as visible light and electromagnetic radiation; the amount and type of radiation depends on the absorption properties of the atmosphere. (CI,62;SE,30)

  • Knows that light, which has color, brightness, and direction associated with it, can be absorbed, scattered, reflected, or transmitted by intervening matter; understands the concept of opacity and of refraction as the basis for the operation of lenses and prisms. (CE,73;SE,30)

  • Knows that energy changes and physical or chemical changes can be measured in the form of heat. (CE,47;SE,30)

Level IV

  • Understands that thermal energy in a material is related to a temperature change and consists of the disordered motions of its colliding atoms or molecules; the loss or gain of thermal energy by a given sample depends on the mass and nature of its material. (2E,63;CE,64;SE,35)

  • Knows that any interactions of atoms or molecules involve either a net decrease in potential energy or a net increase in disorder (entropy) or both. (2E,63;CE,66;SE,36)

  • Understands that transformations of energy usually produce some energy in the form of heat, which, by radiation or conduction, spreads into cooler places so that less can be done with the total energy. (2E,63;CE,66,SE,36)

  • Knows that characteristic energy levels associated with different configurations of atoms and molecules means that light emitted or absorbed during energy transformations can be used to provide evidence regarding the structure and composition of matter. (2E,63;CI,62;SI,36)

  • Knows that some changes of atomic or molecular configurations require an input of energy, whereas others release energy. (2E,63;CE,47;SI,36)


A Useful Snapshot

The Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory is developing a database that identifies content standards and benchmarks from the national standards documents in various content areas. Although we have had to work with draft documents in some areas and will not complete the database until the fall of 1995, our efforts thus far have resulted in what we believe is a useful snapshot of the nature and content of standards and benchmarks as described in the various national reports.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Consortium of National Arts Education Associations. (1994). National Standards for Arts Education. What Every Young American Should Know and Be Able to Do in the Arts. Reston, Va.: Music Educators National Conference.

Kendall, J. S., and R. J. Marzano. (1994). The Systematic Identification and Articulation of Content Standards and Benchmarks: Update, January 1994. Aurora, Colo.: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

Kendall, J. S., and R. J. Marzano. (1995). The Systematic Identification and Articulation of Content Standards and Benchmarks: Update, March 1995. Aurora, Colo.: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

Levine, D. V., and associates. (1985). Improving Student Achievement through Mastery Learning Programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, Va.: NCTM.

National Education Standards and Improvement Council. (1993). Promises to Keep: Creating High Standards for American Students. Report on the Review of Education Standards from the Goals 3 and 4 Technical Planning Group to the National Education Goals Panel. Washington, D.C.: National Goals Panel.

National History Standards Project. (March 1993). Progress Report and Sample Standards. Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools.

Spady, W. G. (1988). “Organizing for Results: The Basis of Authentic Restructuring and Reform.” Educational Leadership 46, 2: 4–8.

Yoon, B., L. Burstein, and K. Gold. (Undated). Assessing the Content Validity of Teacher's Reports of Content Coverage and its Relationship to Student Achievement. (CSE Report No. 328). Los Angeles: Center for Research in Evaluating Standards and Student Testing, University of California, Los Angeles.

End Notes

1 For a detailed discussion of these and other issues, see Kendall and Marzano (1994, 1995).

2 School and district educators who wish to use our database can consult The Systematic Identification and Articulation of Content Standards and Benchmarks: Update (1995), available from McREL, and work through the issues described here on their own. Or, districts may work with McREL consultants, who characteristically train a small team of individuals within the district to guide teachers, administrators, and community members in addressing the issues raised in this article.

Robert Marzano is the CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Centennial, CO, which provides research-based, partner-centered support for educators and education agencies—with the goal of helping teachers improve educational practice.

As strategic advisor, Robert brings over 50 years of experience in action-based education research, professional development, and curriculum design to Marzano Research. He has expertise in standards-based assessment, cognition, school leadership, and competency-based education, among a host of areas.

He is the author of 30 books, 150 articles and chapters in books, and 100 sets of curriculum materials for teachers and students in grades K–12.

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