Personalization and Standards-Based Assessments

01Feb07

Standards-Based Curriculum and Instruction

Educational standards have the potential to revolutionize access to high-quality education for everyone. Standards can help parents, teachers, students, and administrators cope with the demands of our increasingly mobile environment. They can aid in providing more efficient training for teachers, allowing governments to train more teachers, and to ensure that teachers are more effective in the classroom. Standards can serve as rulers with which students can measure their own progress, and they can help parents discover new ways in which learning can be a welcome addition to the household. Yet, despite its potential, education that is too standards oriented is often highly criticized, a common complaint being the cold and rigid assessments that often go along with standards-based education.

Assessments, whether formal or informal, are integral to any form of intervention. Without well-designed assessments, it can be challenging to determine whether your students, who may bring with them a colorful range of ideas and learning styles, are learning what they should be learning. In theory, with instruction carefully structured using standards, assessment should be simple. Multiple choice questions, fill-in-the-blanks, and similar questions—although less desirable—can be used to assess detailed knowledge retention. Short answer questions, problems, essays, and similar forms of questioning can help assess broader knowledge application or cognitive capacity. Many opponents of standards-based assessment voice doubts regarding the efficacy of standards-based assessments to accurately test these latter—and more highly desirable—comprehension skills.

But does standards-based education, and the subsequent standards-based assessments used lead to—as an Indian journalist put it—a “think as you are told generation” in which “we are trying desperately in raising a non-thinking conformist robot” (Krishnan, 2007)? Are these tests accurate measures of student knowledge and do they reflect what was outlined in the standards? Can these tests be appropriately used to evaluate students from different states if these states are using their own form of assessment?

Before one begins to consider these questions, they should be aware of an important and common misconception. Standards-based assessment does not equate with standardized testing. A standardized test like the SAT does not have to conform to state or national standards, and is typically used by a different group of stakeholders (for example, university admissions boards). These tests are based on a comparison of scores with others who are taking the same test (Objective Analyst, n.d.). In standardized tests, there is almost always the concept of a passing mark or a failing mark. A standards-based assessment, by contrast, should accurately reflect what the standards identify as knowledge each student should know at each level. In theory, there is no need for some students to receive a “failing” grade if all the students can demonstrate that they upheld their part of the contract outlined in the standards. The concept of grading using the statistical “bell-curve” does not apply to standards-based assessment (Objective Analyst, n.d.). Instead, terms like “above standard,” “meets standard,” or “below standard” can be used in individualized assessments to help determine areas of shortcoming for each student. To generalize, one could say that the argument that standards-based assessment is cold and rigid is actually a somewhat false accusation; in actuality, it can be a very personalized experience.

This scenario above is ultimately an idealized one, but not necessarily unattainable. Imagine the scenario described by a teacher who made the switch to standards-based assessment (Michael, 2004). Noting the cold negative experience many students had with traditional assessments, the teacher worked with her students to develop a rubric (scaled zero to four) that could be used for each of the standards she would be teaching. The students received progress report cards that showed their achievement level for each standard. Thus it was possible that a student who started the year unfavorably could end up with a final assessment that showed otherwise. Grades were not based on a handful of exams and quizzes, but on a combination of inputs including self-assessment, peer review, effort, and more traditional assessments. Furthermore, students were minutely aware of what was expected of them; since they helped design the rubric, they knew exactly what was necessary to demonstrate that they had achieved the standards.

Teachers will immediately see some of the benefits of this approach. Using standards-based assessments, they can escape from the tendency to compare students, and instead, look at the individual performance of each student. The same assessment can be used for all students—even students with disabilities (Quenemoen, Lehr, Thurlow, & Massanari, 2001) since within the given grade, a time requirement is not required. A student can struggle with a concept taught in the first quarter until he or she finally understands it in the fourth quarter with no penalties. Students may be less discouraged, in part because of the participatory nature of this process, and in part because they can clearly see where they should focus their efforts with the time remaining. Parents are also likely to appreciate knowing exactly what content their children should focus on, although admittedly, the change in the reporting format may take some explanation.

With all these benefits, why all the fuss? Why do we not see more standards-based assessments? Simply put, well-designed standards-based assessments are not easy to develop. In the example above, the scope of assessment is relatively small: it is isolated to a single teacher, most likely teaching a single subject. Imagine scaling up the process to encompass the needs at the district, state, and ultimately, national level, and one can quickly see how this can become a challenge. Furthermore, because of the human input necessary at the assessment stage—these assessments are not simply sheets that can be fed into a computer and mechanically recorded—the overall cost of each assessment is considerably higher. According to the American Association of School Administrators, the cost of scoring a single science class is estimated to be “$4 to $5 per student” compared to “the complete battery of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a nationally standardized multiple-choice test, [which] costs about $1 per student” (Herman, 1998). Additional costs would likely be incurred for training purposes.

Does this mean that standards-based assessment should be disregarded because of potential difficulties in design and implementation? All new ideas provide their fair share of challenges, and since the standards movement is a fairly new one, it is not surprising that the transition will not be a smooth one. However, if the standards upon which the assessments are based are well-written, those creating the assessments will very likely find their job to be a lot easier. Since the promise of standards outweigh the current flaws, this careful progression is well worth the effort.

References

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