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These standards are one facet of the mathematics education community's response to the call for reform in the teaching and learning of mathematics. They reflect, and are an extension of, the community's responses to those demands for change. Inherent in this document is a consensus that all students need to learn more, and often different, mathematics and that instruction in mathematics must be significantly revised.
As a function of NCTM's leadership in current efforts to reform school mathematics, the Commission on Standards for School Mathematics was established by the Board of Directors and charged with two tasks:
Historically there have been three reasons for groups to formally adopt a set of standards: (1) to ensure quality, (2) to indicate goals, and (3) to promote change. For NCTM, all three reasons are of equal importance.
First, standards often are used to ensure that the public is protected from shoddy products. For example, a druggist is not allowed to sell a drug unless it meets certain very rigid standards that include both the control of how it was produced and evidence of its effectiveness. Standards in this sense are minimal criteria for quality. They set necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for producing desired results. There is no guarantee that a drug will not be misused or will produce expected results.
Second, standards often are used as a means of expressing expectations about goals. Goals are broad statements of social intent. For example, we can agree that two goals for all tests are that they should be both valid and reliable. The standards for tests developed by the American Psychological Association in 1974 describe the kind of documentation that publishers should provide about the reliability and validity of each test.
Third, standards often are set to lead a group toward some new desired goals. For example, the medical profession has adopted and periodically updates standards for the licensing of specialists based on changes in technology, research, and so on. The intent is to improve or update practices when necessary. In this sense, standards should be seen as "criteria for excellence." They are based on an informed vision of what should be done given current knowledge and experience.
Standards are needed for school mathematics for all three purposes. Schools, teachers, students, and the public at large currently enjoy no protection from shoddy products. It seems reasonable that anyone developing products for use in mathematics classrooms should document how the materials are related to current conceptions of what content is important to teach and should present evidence about their effectiveness. For NCTM the development of standards as statements of criteria for excellence in order to produce change was the focus. Schools, and in particular school mathematics, must reflect the important consequences of the current reform movement if our students are to be adequately prepared to live in the twenty-first century. The standards should be viewed as facilitators of reform.
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