The innocuous label of “standards-based learning”Hides a vicious idea that can effectively eliminate any rigor and responsibility that still remains in public education.
Standards-based learning is based on the premise that if a student demonstrates mastery of a certain list of academic requirements (in my state these are called TEKS, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) of a class, he deserves to pass that class. This relies on another premise that all classes and their curriculum can be divided into individual standards, and the purpose of a course is to help students master those standards. All of this follows the competency-based learning approach advocated by standards systems like the common core.
This is not how real reading works
For example, in a second year English course, students may have to master the standard of recognizing the relevance of historical context in a given text (TEKS 110.37.6D). Students “practice” this standard by doing various exercises that select pieces of text and short biographies of various writers, then ask students to answer questions about the historical context.
In a final project (always a project, never an actual test, which has fewer gaps), students could show “mastery” of this standard by drawing a picture of the frame of a story and writing a three-sentence description. of this framework. If the student accomplishes this task in any capacity imaginable (a stick figure and a few words), then the teacher can rightly declare that they have mastered the skill and have this mark on this final project replaced with all the zeros that the student has received on the practices.
Everything is false. The first problem concerns the theory of standards-based learning itself. Most subjects, even mathematics, cannot be divided according to isolated standards. Understanding the context, making inferences, determining an objective, evaluating an argument and all the rest are not really “skills” in a meaningful sense; they are all part of the reading to treat. Readers do all of these things at the same time, and if they can do it well, they don’t have mastered a particular skill, but are just good readers.
The same goes for solving a mathematical problem, carrying out a scientific experiment or analyzing a historical theme. The interdependence of most academic processes highlights the second problem with standards-based learning: showing ability on an activity does not necessarily equate to mastery.
Even if a student correctly answers a fitting question on one story, he or she may hesitate with another story. The difference is in working on the content, without really mastering the supposed skill of “determining the framework of a story”. It is relatively easy to determine the setting in “Things Fall Apart”; it is relatively difficult to do so in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
This makes class planning tedious
In terms of planning, standards-based learning often adds more to a teacher’s plate. Teachers should divide their homework into different stages and attach different standards to each stage.
No longer can an English teacher simply assign a class essay to a story the class has read. Now he needs to break that essay down into Pre-Write, Outline, Draft, Peer Review, and Final Draft assignments and tag each of them with the corresponding standards. Too often, what starts out as a quick and efficient way to offer practice and get a grade turns into a tedious series of meaningless activities that spoil two weeks of instruction.
When standards-based learning is applied to scoring, even more problems abound. All of a sudden, a student’s grade is unrelated to their effort, progress, or even actual mastery of the material. Rather, it is usually tied to a single performance on a subjective assessment that somehow incorporates most or all of the major standards of a learning unit. For failing students, it serves as an exit card from failure; for students who do well in class, it’s one more meaningless hoop to go through.
There are much better ways to learn
In contrast, in a traditional classroom setting, students get their grades through the work they do periodically throughout the grading period. These grades will include a mix of homework that includes teacher advice (formative assessments) and those that require students to study and demonstrate their knowledge unaided (summative assessments). Formative assessments help students prepare for summative assessments – nothing replaces the other, and nothing is added for the purpose of verifying a standard.
So what often results from a standards-based scoring is a student who has never done any of the assignments or learned any of the subjects, but still passes the course brilliantly. Or, the student could have done all the work, but still hasn’t learned the material, and is also doing brilliantly. Since standardized tests meant to empower teachers and students are either ridiculously easy or nonexistent, no one seems to care that grades have become completely irrelevant.
So why are states and school systems adopting this flawed theory? Primarily, this justifies campuses having to reduce their failure rates, which is pretty much all campuses.
This is exactly what happened in the United School District of San Diego, which has taken steps to eliminate the disparities in rankings between different racial groups. Officially, they changed their grading policy to “show progress towards ‘mastery of standards’, rather than rewarding students for doing a certain amount of work.” In reality, they were just passing students who weren’t doing their job.
Skills are empty, leaving teachers to tamper with content
Making the courses standards-based also opens the door for a change of curriculum to fit a political agenda or lighten the teaching load. If English teachers hates teaching Homer, they can now justify that they will teach their standards with alternative texts.
If history teachers hate teaching their subject matter from a pro-Western perspective, they can use Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States” to help students learn to “think historically”. If quadratic equations are a hard sell for students, math teachers may downplay this particular standard and stress other parts of the textbook. If a biology teacher wants to be sensitive to transgender students, she can cut down on the lesson on reproduction and watch “Outbreak” with Ice Cube instead.
As with other false pedagogical theories and fashions (including Critical Race Theory), standards-based scoring distinguishes itself by perpetuating mediocrity in the classroom. She claims to save time and get straight to the point of learning, when she actually does without the necessary work of teaching and learning. It is only later that it becomes clear that the students have learned almost nothing in school.
Just like there is no free lunch, there is no learning without effort. Any educational theory or practice suggesting otherwise is a scam. Standards-based scoring is just one example of this pervasive dynamic in education in the United States.