State Standards and Grammar in the Curriculum 
The Meaninglessness of Most States' Standards

A Response from Sandra Stotsky
Harvard University: Philosophy of Education Research Center

June 29, 1998

Dr. Ed Vavra
Rose Parisella Productions
P.O. Box 4026,
Williamsport, PA 17701-0626

Dear Dr. Vavra:
Iím responding to your letter of June 20 to me concerning the grammar standards in Pennsylvaniaís state standards document. As you know from our correspondence in years past, I believe grammar should be taught to all students in K-12.  I share some of the concerns about vagueness that you expressed in your letter to John Weiss of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but I also agree with Mr. Weiss in several of the points he made. Let me explain.

I think that a standards document should contain specific but different grammar details from K-12, rather than repeat at grade 11 what is indicated for grade 8.  It is not wise to imply that nothing new can be taught from grade 8 on. The Massachusetts standards that I helped write noted some specific but new details at each grade level assessed.  By the end of grade 4, the document expects students to be able to "identify parts of speech (e.g., nouns, verbs, and adjectives), punctuation (e.g., end marks, commas for series, apostrophes), capitalization (e.g., countries, cities, names of people, months, days), paragraph indentation, usage (e.g., subject and verb agreement), sentence structure (e.g., fragments, run-ons), and standard English spelling."  By the end of grade 8, the document expects students to "identify all parts of speech, types of sentences (e.g., simple, compound, and complex), mechanics (e.g., quotation marks, comma at the end of a dependent clause before a main clause), usage (pronoun reference), sentence structure (parallelism, properly placed modifiers), and standard English spelling (homophones)."  By the end of grade 10, the document expects students to "diagram a sentence, identifying types of clauses (e.g., main and subordinate), phrases (e.g., gerunds, infinitives, and participles), mechanics (e.g., semi-colons, colons, and hyphens), usage (e.g., tense consistency), sentence structure (e.g., parallel structure), and standard English spelling."  By grade 12, the document simply states that all students should be able to "identify, describe, and apply all conventions of standard English." In addition, at each grade level assessed, the document also includes an example of a classroom activity that makes it clear to teachers and parents how these expectations might be taught or learned or practiced in a typical classroom.

Regrettably, Massachusetts is one of the very few statements that includes a clear example for every one of its standards or objectives. To do so takes a great deal of time and I suspect this was not possible for those educators who worked on the drafts of the Pennsylvania document that you examined. As a result, one finds not only in the Pennsylvania document but in many other standards documents such vague or general statements as "describe differences in syntax and semantics in a variety of written and oral text."  I agree that most parents are unlikely to have any idea what that objective means.

On the other hand a standards document is supposed to indicate only what is expected of students, not how to teach it, as Mr. Weiss points out.  For example, the Pennsylvania document expects students to use specific punctuation marks by the end of different grade levels.  This is quite acceptable for a standards document. Moreover, this is a testable objective; when a piece of student writing is assessed, it will be rated for its control of those marks.  How teachers teach students to use these punctuation marks is not the responsibility of a standards document.  I would say something similar regarding your concern about the expectation for dictionary use: what is in the Pennsylvania document is adequate for a standards document. The expectation does not need to be more specific than that.

Perhaps the problem you have with the grammar standards is how they will be assessed.  I would agree that we could not be sure that a child had really met a standard if we simply asked a teacher if he or she had taught dictionary use to the class and the teacher said yes (because we wouldn't know whether the teacher had given only one lesson in looking up words in a dictionary). The standard should be met in a statewide test for which teachers would have to give students enough practice so that the understanding would be solid.

Iím not sure I have satisfactorily answered all your questions. I think it would be useful for further revisions of the Pennsylvania document to note more specific differences in the details for K-12 in the grammar strand than now appear there.  But I do think they have testable standards now.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D.
Research Associate

Dear Professor Stotsky:

     Thank you for taking the time to respond to my letter. Unless I am misreading it, you agree with me on every point. First, you agree that the repetition in Pennsylvania's standards is bad. Clearly, the Massachusetts standards you describe are much better. You also note that the Massachusetts standards describe classroom activities, etc. to help clarify the standards. Pennsylvania's standards do not. Second, you agree that the Pennsylvania standards are vague and that parents "are unlikely to have any idea" as to what some of the objectives mean. Clearly, this is unacceptable in a standards statement, such as Pennsylvania's, which directly states that an objective of the standards is to enable parents to understand what is going on.
     At first glance, it may appear to some readers that you and I disagree about whether or not the Pennsylvania standards are testable. You state that they are; I claim that they are not. But the difference here, I would suggest, is one of context. You are thinking theoretically; I am working in a much more practical context. As you state, '[t]he standard should be met in a statewide test ...." But Pennsylvania has no statewide test, nor, to my knowledge, any plans for a statewide test. As your letter implies, without a statewide test, the standards are not testable.
     I am disturbed by the confusion, shared by you and Mr. Weiss, about what I am trying to do. I have never stated that a standards document should include "how to teach." But then, I am not writing a standards document. What I have proposed is a curriculum which includes standards. Each level of the KISS approach includes a section on Assessment, and these sections describe what I consider to be standards. Somehow, I need to figure out how to make this distinction/combination clearer.
      This distinction/combination is very important -- and a major problem in our educational system. Apparently, both you and Mr. Weiss believe that standards can be separated from how and what to teach. Such a separation, however, is probably what led to 59% of teacher candidates failing the Massachusetts' Teachers Test. Obviously, these candidates were not taught (or did not learn) what they needed to know to pass the test (i.e., standard). The KISS Approach, on the other hand, proposes not just standards, but also a very carefully constructed design for helping students meet those standards. That design, moreover, is heavily based on widely accepted theories of cognitive development, of linguistics, of psycholinguistics, and of natural syntactic development.
     I want to thank you again for bringing the Massachusetts standards to my attention. They are, as I noted, better than those of Pennsylvania (at least in the area of grammar), but I would suggest that there are still problems in the Massachusetts standards. For one thing, you note that in those standards, tenth grade students are expected to be able to identify clauses, gerunds, etc. It will be interesting to see what happens with these expectations. In several threads on NCTE-Talk, English teachers themselves have indicated an inability to identify clauses. And, in a thread about the Massachusetts test, teachers indicated an inability to identify gerunds.  If teachers can't do it, I don't know how you expect them to teach students to be able to do it, especially if you supply them with standards but with no effective instruction on "how to teach."
     If I can find the time, I would like to look at the Massachusetts standards in more detail, but I can already see some other potential problems, just from your description. For example, fourth graders are expected to be able to identify fragments and run-ons, but fragments and run-ons are a typical problem of seventh and eighth graders -- students who are at the natural developmental level of mastering subordinate clauses. Thus the state appears to have fourth graders attempting to comprehend a concept which Vygotsky would consider way beyond  their zone of proximal development. Similarly, it doesn't make any sense to me that eighth graders are expected to identify types of sentences (including complex, i.e., sentences that include subordinate clauses), but students are not expected to identify subordinate clauses until tenth grade. As a last example, I would be interested in seeing some examples of sentences that students will be expected to diagram. (Diagramming itself is a major point of disagreement among, for example, the members of the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, and there are several different methods of diagramming.)
     I do want to express, once again, my appreciation for your contribution to this discussion, and I will certainly appreciate any additional comments you might want to make.

Dr. Ed Vavra

A videotape of Professor Stotsky's presentation to the PA State Board -- and other information critical of PA State Standards -- is available from the PA Parents' Commission,  Box 73, Johnstown, PA 15907-0073