Do Standards Make a Difference?

Do Standards Based Assessments help or hinder students?
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Standards based assessment grew out of the trend in the late 1990’s to create educational standards for all students. The conviction that expectations for student performance needed to be raised and the belief that if students and educators were given specific goals to meet, they would have a more clearly defined idea of what the students needed to learn and the educators needed to teach. By presenting students with a more challenging curriculum, students would gain measurable proficiency in all areas. In 2002 this trend became federally mandated by the No Child Left Behind act. Now all schools are basing their curriculum on educational standards and using standards based assessment to determine if the students have achieved their goals.


While we as educators may benefit from having clearly defined curriculum goals through the use of education standards, the current system of holding schools accountable based on assessment scores can be a prescription for disaster. The current use of content standards or curriculum frameworks has further exacerbated the problem. These content standards describe what students should know and be able to do in certain subjects at various grade levels. They are combined with performance standards which break down the content standards into levels of “basic”, “proficient” or “advanced” knowledge in the subject area. The criteria for these levels are based on human judgment and in some states the standards have been raised so that students must show greater proficiency to reach the same levels that others reached in previous years. In many cases the standards are too vague or too precise or even flawed and since they are based on the standards, the assessments can only be as good as the educational standards. In addition, in some school systems, even the students with special learning needs are held accountable for showing mastery of grade level material though they may not be able to read or comprehend the subject matter.


Assessment can be a valuable tool if used correctly. In a productive classroom an educator uses two types of assessment: on going to guide the direction of the lessons to meet the students ‘needs and cumulative to determine at the end of a unit or course if students have incorporated the material.  Ongoing assessment can take the form of rubrics, portfolios, and even student self assessment. These are all creative methods for assessing where students are holding individually and where they need to go. Cumulative curriculum assessment can also be creative by presenting the students with opportunities in the testing situation to apply their knowledge of the material. Unfortunately, cumulative curriculum assessment often takes the form of multiple choice and/or short answer tests which don’t necessarily show the students‘abilities. While they are certainly easier to format and to grade, there is no way to determine from these types of tests whether a student is capable of researching, analyzing, and synthesizing information.

Since this is exactly the format of standards based assessment we are left with an inaccurate picture of the students actual abilities. In one study, some students who had consistently scored well on these assessments were unable to succeed in their college studies after high school as they lacked basic research and writing capabilities.


If a student is proficient at test taking, has retained the material taught, and comes to the assessment session in a good physical and mental state, then s/he will score well on these assessments. If not, the current system holds the educator/school responsible for the undesirable results.


This phenomenon has many teaching for the tests with often a month or more of valuable instruction time being wasted on standards based assessment preparation. The actual curriculum becomes secondary, the educational standards are set aside and the students are drilled in how to become proficient in passing the test.


We and our students deserve better. Education standards were developed to improve the quality of instruction and provide our students with greater learning potential. Our students need to learn how to investigate, evaluate and incorporate information. As dedicated teachers, we have a duty to help our students become proficient in these valuable tools for life. Even if the curriculums are sound, by focusing on the outcome of the standards based assessment we are all losing out.



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