What is it?
As teachers we often plan our pacing and classes based on a standardized list of content for our class. It's standardized in the sense that other people also use the same list. We tend to treat the content standards as a checklist of things that students are supposed to learn for our class. Anyone who stumbled on this blog probably has some exposure to more than one collection of standardized content. If not, I guess I found a larger audience then I intended. I hope you stick around for a bit. Find and read any AP course description for an example. Here is the AP Physics C: Mechanics one. An example of a single content standard for physics could be: Students will be able to predict the location of a mass experiencing a known constant unbalanced force over a given duration of time with known initial velocity. This would be one of many that would make up the content standards for a physics class.
Why do we use standardized content?
There are number of answers to this question, depending on who you ask. With content standards for learning in place, if using them actually worked, then educators would have some expectations of content knowledge for students coming out of the various levels of K-12 education. In theory, all K-12 educators could benefit from that. College and university professors might also be interested in that.
I think most K-12 teachers would say they currently use them because they have to. Same with most admins and district level decision-makers. The answers given by the people who force us to use the standards will vary depending on what they believe will placate the one currently asking the question. I don't believe we often get their honest answers.
There are a number of people who believe that we can use content standards to build a population of educated citizens who have a foundation of knowledge and understanding of the world. These are the people will the best reasons why we need standards. They just haven't settled on the right foundation yet, in my opinion. They have worthy goals of preparing our youth to be informed and knowledgeable so they will value science as they go off into the world to make important decisions, like how to vote.
Another good answer to why we use content standards is that they provide a guide for what is appropriate for a high school science learner. This is especially useful for new science teachers who have to develop their own curriculum. I have used content standards for the majority of my teaching career. I never really hated them or anything. Early in my career content standards seemed like a nice set of guidelines. For one of my teaching jobs it is pretty much all I had to work with when I started. They even provided a fun puzzle to work out with fellow teacher of physics. How do I fit these all in a school year? Standards as a guide is a great answer, depending on how we force teachers to use them, but it starts to fall apart when we start to test them.
Who creates these content standards?
The State is often the answer to that question, but that is changing. I don't actually know what the State of Michigan is currently demanding we teach in physics, because, thankfully, my school is not bound by that, so I don't have to know. Michigan was going to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and then we didn't, and now I don't know where we are with that. At some point some people in power wanted to add Michigan-themed content to the NGSS and that delayed adopting it, if I remember correctly. Sometimes states come up with their own content standards. Here is a Michigan content standards document I worked off of in the past when I had to. Sometimes states work together to craft them or they adopt more common content standards from bigger broader efforts, like the NGSS or Common Core. Last I checked, 20 states have adopted the NGSS. Sometimes they leave it up to districts or regions to write them, although that freedom seems to be rare these days. Independent schools are not bound by state standards, so they choose their own.
I wrote my own physics content standards a few years back when I tried out standards-based grading. I didn't want to adopt anyone else's, so I sat down at a blank Google doc and typed out and organized everything I thought I could possible want high school physics students to learn to do. This is the document I created that has them all together. For one of my classes, like the single semester Classical Mechanics intro class, I would select some of my standards from that list and focus on teaching those. A different class would use a different list from those standards. Physics Honors, the full year course, would cover almost all of them, except for the calculus applications, which were for 2nd year physics. It was a lot of work to write and organize them, I was pretty proud of them, and they might seem impressive to others. I wrote them as "I can __" statements with action verbs made them seem like they made sense, but at some point even my own content standards eventually became uninspiring as a source for what to evaluate students on. I still use them to plan.
There are many parties who demand to have a say as to what content should be taught and learned in what classes. It's a constant mess of a fight with different parties resisting standardizing, or wanting a bigger voice in standards at different levels for various reasons, or even trying to add pseudoscience or non-scientific content to science standards. The fact that we cannot agree on these things should really be a sign that content standards should not matter anywhere near as much as they currently do.
The NGSS is an example of what happens when you get a lot of smart people together to try to write science standards to help guide the education of the previously mentioned desired population of educated citizens with a solid foundation of science knowledge. The result is a complex series of impressive documents that lay out a foundation of understanding for science and engineering for K-12 education. It's really just well detailed and connected standardized content with some important skills worked in. Dig down and choose any single random element of understanding from the documents and you will most likely find a description of some knowledge that the vast majority of citizens will never use or consider for the rest of their lives. Here is an example I just found in about 30 seconds of clicking. It's a high school physical science item.