by Laura Chris Green, Ph.D. and Adela Solis, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 1997

Dr. Adela SolisEducational reform initiatives in the 1990s have focused on students’ knowledge and skills since the profile of student achievement in the nation sadly has shown us that students are not prepared for real-world challenges. Whether college-bound or job-bound, young people are struggling as they confront demands for even the most basic reading, writing and thinking skills.

Results of large-scale assessments at the national and state levels confirm this trend. Academic discipline experts, too, can point out widespread limitations in mastery of disciplines, whether pertaining to math, geography or literature. The implications are that our young citizens cannot get ahead careerwise or compete in the global economy. This has stimulated educational reform initiatives that focus on the development of “standards” for students.

We often hear phrases mentioned such as “world-class standards,” “challenging content” and “high-level skills,” which hints that schools have not clearly identified, or have forgotten to specify, in their curricula what the students should know and master to become successful adults (see U.S. Department of Education, 1995). This perception opposes the previous view that a focus on outcomes, usually in the form of test results, was all that was needed to stimulate and obtain desired educational results.

The most visible national standards today are the national education goals that were established in 1990 by a group comprised of state governors and former President Bush. The standards were further promoted by Congress in 1994 through the legislation, Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Other national standards are those developed by professional organizations for the different core school subjects (see Education Week, 1993).

Both the national goals and the core subject standards exist to guide state and local initiatives in setting their own standards. Although not mandatory, existing national standards have influenced much activity at the state and local levels to a large extent because the federal government advocates the idea and supports it financially.

Through the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, for example, the Department of Education provides financial resources for states and school districts to use in developing or improving local standards. Additionally, the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 (the successor to the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act), which funds Title I, Title VII, migrant and other programs for disadvantaged children, now holds schools accountable for the federal dollars they spend through their own local standards. Specifically, the federal government requests that states define “educational progress” for accountability using curricular goals and assessments tailored to their student populations. In doing so, the government assumes that state standards exist. In cases where they do not, states are strongly encouraged to use federal support (through the national goals legislation and other sources) to establish them.

Impetus for standards also comes from national assessment initiatives (also supported by professional organizations) that promote performance-based assessments. Advocates of performance-based assessments concur that schools must have clearly defined and specified knowledge and skills indicators.

But what are standards, exactly? Educators may be in agreement that there is a need to identify what students need to know and be able to do by developing standards, but many do not know what the concept really means or what the process entails. It is not that straightforward, even to the reformers themselves.

In Texas we are in the process of establishing new standards called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS pronounced with a short e). The TEKS are Texas’ effort to spell out what students in the state should know and be able to do. Although it has been referred to officially as a “clarifying” process, the TEKS developers have been influenced, as have many other educators, by the factors and trends mentioned above. Thus, they actually have been involved in new thinking and rewriting. Currently, there are TEKS draft documents being circulated for review and feedback.

There are at least two things to consider in reviewing or implementing Texas standards: (1) the definition of standards and (2) equity issues associated with their development and use.

The Definition of Standards

Standards refers to clear goals and objectives that are tied to the curricula that schools employ to teach students. On the surface, this idea seems trivial because schools have textbooks and other curricular materials for students and teachers to use in the classroom. Many schools also have curriculum guides and teacher staff development that are meant to guide them. However, observations of teachers and classrooms indicate strongly that there is no consensus on the “what” and “how” of teaching.

One group of reformers summarizes the problem like this:

    American education today lacks a coherent system to determine what children should learn, what levels of proficiency they should achieve, how staff should be trained and how governance should be restructured to meet these goals. Without a clear systemic vision, it is impossible to plan, implement or evaluate reforms so that our present efforts can become part of a continuous fabric of schools and system improvement activities (Stanford Working Group, 1993).

Embodied in the idea of standards are two other important beliefs: (1) standards are high level performance targets and (2) teachers have high expectations that all students can achieve the standards.

There are different conceptualizations of standards. Most prominent are content standards. These describe what students should know and be able to do (e.g., the student can use estimation to check the reasonableness of results). A curriculum standard identifies an instructional device or technique that can appropriately help shape the student’s learning (e.g., the student describes, models, draws or classifies shapes).

A performance standard identifies the tasks in which the student demonstrates knowledge and skill (the performance standard presumes that the knowledge or skill is defined if it is embedded in a task). The performance standard for a piece of knowledge would specify the level of accuracy and the facts, concepts and generalizations that a student must understand to be judged as successful at a certain level of achievement (e.g., consistently [or 90 percent of the time] models numbers using number lines). The performance standard would also put that knowledge in a specific context by stating a form for presenting the information (e.g., through an essay, an oral report, a graph, the student will…).

Issues related to content and performance standards that should be reconciled by states and school districts have to do with the level of specificity of each standard, the number of standards there should be and the number of benchmarks (the developmental levels that students move through within each standard) there should be (Marzano and Kendall, 1995; O’Neil, 1995).

Opportunity to learn standards identify the learning environment and how it is organized so that students have real opportunities to learn (e.g., materials that can be used, personnel who can assist). Opportunity to learn standards speak specifically to students with special needs and thus are related to the issue of equity (see Wolk, 1992; Schnaiberg, 1994).

Equity in Developing and Using Standards

As indicated above, the thrust of the standards movement is to stimulate high levels of performance and learning by all students. Because school systems today have highly diverse student populations with diverse learning needs, a challenge schools face is to deliver instructional services so that all students eventually meet the high standards. Students with limited English proficiency (LEP) are a particular group to whom schools in Texas teach to high standards. How to do this in an equitable manner requires creative strategies in planning and teaching (see Gonzales, 1995). But prior to that are the adjustments of school personnel mindsets.

In 1993, a group of educators, convened as the Stanford Working Group, examined the specific challenge of how to include LEP students in the reform proposals of the 1990s. The group made some specific recommendations for states to consider as they move toward setting and using high standards. The findings and suggestions can be useful tools for educators as they chart the path for success for these students. Below are a few of the insights that merit some thought:

  • The educator mindset about LEP students – that their native language and culture are obstacles to achievement – is a major inhibitor to the educator’s effort to include LEP students when teaching to high standards. Research soundly shows the failure of this “deficit model.”
  • Research, in fact, demonstrates that all children can and do engage in complex thinking tasks. Thus, researchers now hold that the potential to achieve high levels of cognitive functioning is a property of the human species and therefore accessible to all children.
  • Accessibility to high levels of cognitive functioning can only be provided through high quality instruction and a challenging curriculum.
  • “Dumbing-down” the curriculum for disadvantaged children represents an insupportable denial of educational opportunity because there are examples (that many educators can access) of what can happen when students are provided the opportunity and expectations to achieve high levels of learning (Stanford Working Group, 1993).

Bilingual TEKS Over Texas

As mentioned before, the Texas Education Agency is in the midst of a major rewriting of the state-required curriculum for math, science, social studies, English language arts and a variety of other courses. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) will replace the “Essential Elements” as guidelines for instruction for kindergarten through 12th grade and will have major effects on public education at the local, state and national levels.

An important issue focuses on whether or not the TEKS will be able to help teachers meet the needs of second language learners without punishing them for previous educational neglect or for their linguistic and cultural diversity.

Textbook publishers, state-mandated test designers and teacher preparation programs will be required to align their content with the TEKS. It has often been said that, “As goes Texas, so goes the nation.” Because the Texas textbook market is so large, the TEKS will also affect the textbooks, tests and instruction of other states. At the local level, schools will be held accountable for ensuring that all students, including second language learners, have access to TEKS-aligned curricula and instruction.

This change has been long overdue. The Essential Elements standards represented a significant advance over previous attempts to specify curricular standards at the state and local levels, but educators agreed that they were often vague, were hard to measure and had not kept up with recent advances in the field, especially in light of the content and performance standards being developed at the national level (e.g., National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1991; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; National Center on Education and the Economy, 1995; International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English, 1996; National Research Council, 1996; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, in development). Business and community leaders and professional educators also made it clear that the Essential Elements standards could not adequately prepare students for the demands of the 21st century workplace or responsible US citizenship.

The TEKS guidelines are much longer than the Essential Elements. Currently at 2,000 pages, the State Board of Education has requested changes that will require the document to grow even longer. As one would expect, much of the expansion, as compared to the Essential Elements, can be traced to an increase in expectations for student knowledge and performance in all content areas. Greater emphases on problem solving, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and inquiry are evident. These changes are greatly needed if we are to prepare students adequately for tomorrow.

Yet, can teachers increase their expectations for second language learners to meet those they hold for students whose primary language is English? Will attempts to do so inevitably lead to frustration, anger and defeat for second language learners and their teachers?

“Yes,” answers the first question, and “No” answers the second, provided that school districts, the Texas Education Agency and teacher education programs all accomplish their share of necessary changes. First, there must be a statewide policy that recognizes the contributions of native language development to English language development and content area knowledge. Second, there must be an expansion of the TEKS to specify modifications of the expectations for second language learners. Third, there must be an increase in genuine support for effective teaching practices for second language learners (see Villarreal, 1996).

One of the “basic understandings” for the TEKS in English language arts acknowledges that primary language knowledge and skills can contribute to second language learning:

For students whose first language is other than English, the native language may be needed as a foundation for English language acquisition and literacy learning, (Texas Education Agency, July 1996).

Bilingual educators throughout the state should rejoice that the statement will be read by all elementary and secondary teachers who teach reading or English whether or not they have bilingual education or ESL students. It recognizes that all teachers, not just bilingual/ESL teachers, are accountable for the English language acquisition of language minority students.

On the other hand, the statement equivocates by stating that “the native language may be needed as a foundation” rather than simply stating, “the native language is the foundation.” Pronouncing this simple linguistic truth, that the child’s first language is the building block on which his or her learning of English will be built, does not imply that all teachers will be required to teach in the child’s native language. Besides being impossible for monolingual English-speaking teachers to acquire enough knowledge of another language without years of study, it is both more effective and more efficient for bilingual teachers to handle this part of the bilingual program. It does mean, however, that even monolingual teachers need to understand the contributions of primary language to second language development and to take advantage of those contributions whenever possible.

Despite the ambivalence of this statement in the English language arts TEKS, it is highly preferable to the absence of any such statement in the TEKS for math, science and social studies. Of special significance is the content area TEKS for secondary students. Because current state law only requires bilingual programs for kindergarten through sixth grade students, only a very few middle or high schools in the state provide content area or literacy development courses in languages other than English, even when they have large numbers of recent immigrant students, many of whom received little or no schooling in their countries of origin. A recognition in the TEKS that math, science and social studies can be learned as well in Spanish or other languages as in English could help secondary schools understand that such an approach could accelerate their students’ academic achievement over an ESL-only approach.

An expansion of the TEKS, especially the English language arts TEKS, is also in order to specify how (if at all) expectations for second language learners should differ from expectations for native English speakers. However, it may prove very complex to accomplish. One major issue is that not all second language learners are alike. Some are at the initial stages of learning English; others can hardly be distinguished from native speakers in their command of the language. Some are expert readers and writers in their native languages; others have never held a pencil or a book. Some have mastered advanced concepts and skills in math, science and social studies in their native languages; others have never been to school. Some speak languages, such as Spanish, for which instructional materials and native speakers are easily available; others speak languages of which their teachers have never heard. Expectations for these subgroups of second language learners must also be addressed.

At the very least, it needs to be clear which performance descriptors apply to beginners or novices, which to intermediate proficiency level students and which to advanced level students. For example, should fourth grade beginners study outlining or word origins, evaluate the uses of propaganda or employ standard English usage in polished formal writing? If not, at which proficiency level or grade should they be introduced to these skills and topics?

A clear understanding of the difference between content and form could help. We know that a lack of English proficiency does not mean a lack of intelligence. Second language learners are as intellectually capable as anyone else of understanding complex concepts and relationships. When cognitively complex ideas are expressed in linguistically complex ways, however, second language learners may stumble and fall. And when they do comprehend the new information, they may not be able to express their understanding, again because linguistic complexity is required by the teacher in his or her assessment of the student’s knowledge. When teachers realize that new concepts (content) can be explained in alternative ways (form), such as reducing linguistic complexity and enriching classroom context, they will be well on their way to helping second language learners acquire the same knowledge and skills as other students without requiring them to demonstrate mastery in inappropriate and ineffective ways.

Students who are not literate in any language will also need special consideration. It seems obvious that prerequisite skills such as left-to-right directionality, sound-symbol correspondences and the mechanics of letter formation will need to be taught directly to students who are pre-literate. Beginning reading and writing skills are addressed in the TEKS for kindergarten through third grade, but not for fourth through 12th grade. Even students who do have native language literacy may need to be taught some of these skills because their language’s written systems differ from that of English. Ideographic languages such as Japanese do not follow the alphabetic principle. Second language learners from Japan and other Asian countries will need to learn how letters, sounds and words work together in English. Other languages do not follow left-to-right conventions, and all will have phonological systems different from English. These differences should be targeted when initially teaching students in any grade to read and write in English.

On the other hand, students who do have some native language literacy will be able to transfer many skills to their English literacy development. They will not need to be retaught all of the beginning reading and writing skills. For example, most of the Spanish consonants are identical or very close to the English consonants. Phonics instruction for Spanish readers should focus on the vowels and on those consonants such as v and z, that have different sounds in English and Spanish. Many bilingual/ESL teachers are aware of such contrasting analyses of different languages, but others are not. Including such information in the English language arts TEKS could help us address this.

Once the TEKS have been revised and expanded, support of effective teaching practices will become critical. State law requires that the TEKS update the state curriculum without restricting local flexibility and control. They are designed to specify what to teach, but not how to teach. Local school districts will continue to decide which methods and materials to use to meet the needs of their students.

All of the challenges associated with the teaching of second language learners cannot, as a result, be fully addressed in the TEKS. The Texas Education Agency, the regional education service centers and other training and technical assistance providers such as the STAR Center will need to assist school districts in taking the TEKS and making them their own. Plans for written classroom vignettes to describe how the TEKS can be implemented at different grade levels, staff development materials and training videos will be developed and disseminated to help.

It will also be important that steps be taken to ensure that the curriculum is aligned with assessment. The state assessment system will need to be modified to include appropriate assessment of LEP students. For example, a recent state agency report to the 75th Texas legislature calls for alternative assessment of LEP students who are exempted from the English-language TAAS (Texas Education Agency, 1996).

A statewide committee, under the direction of the bilingual education department of the Texas Education Agency, has begun meeting to develop TEKS for ESL in kindergarten through 12th grade and for Spanish language arts in kindergarten through sixth grade. Meanwhile, the current draft of TEKS for English language arts, math, science and social studies continues to be reviewed by the State Board of Education and may well change before the final adoption scheduled for July 1997. There is still time for bilingual/ESL and other educators to provide input into revisions of and additions to the TEKS.

Requests can also be made that staff development materials for regular and bilingual/ESL teachers on the ESL and Spanish language arts TEKS be developed. A great opportunity to improve the education of second language learners is before us, if we will only take the time to apply our professionalism and our expertise to state policy-making.


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

Education Week “Guide to National Efforts to Set Subject Matter Standards.” (June 16, 1993), pp. 16-17.

Gonzales, Frank. Teaching Content: ESL Strategies for Classroom Teachers. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995).

International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English. Standards for the English Language Arts. (Newark, Delaware and Urbana, Illinois: International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English, 1996).

Marzano, Robert J. and John S. Kendall. “The McREL Database: A Tool for Constructing Local Standards,” Educational Leadership. (March 1995), Vol. 52, Number 6, pp. 42-47.

National Center on Education and the Economy. New Standards, Consultation Draft. (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh, 1995).

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics. (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1991).

National Research Council. National Science Education Standards. (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996).

O’Neil, John. “On Using the Standards: A Conversation with Ramsay Selden,” Educational Leadership. (March 1995), Vol. 52, Number 6, pp. 12-14.

Schnaiberg, Lynn. “Advocates Seek Place for LEP Students in Standards Movement,” Education Week. (March 30, 1994).

Stanford Working Group. Federal Education Programs for Limited-English-Proficient Students: A Blueprint for the Second Generation. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University, 1993).

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. ESL Standards for Pre-K – 12 Students, In development. (Current draft available from

Texas Education Agency. Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), second draft. (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, July 1, 1996).

Texas Education Agency. Assessment System for Limited English Proficient Students Exempted from the Texas Assessment Program at Grades 3-8. (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, December 1996).

US Department of Education. School-based Reform: Lessons from a National Study. (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, 1995).

Villarreal, Abelardo. “High Failure Rates or Ineffectiveness?” IDRA Newsletter, (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1996).

Wolk, Ronald A. “By All Measures: The Debate Over Standards and Assessments,” Education Week – Special Report. (June 17, 1992).

For more information or a copy of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), contact the Texas Education Agency or your education service center. The TEKS are also available on-line at:

Dr. Laura Chris Green is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Dr. Adela Solis is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to them via e-mail at at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]