Classroom Mastery of Performance Standards


The move to standard-based education was caused by a number of factors affecting the quality of education and teaching. Standards are important mechanisms for mastery in any subject or skill. State legislators have wisely chosen to raise standards universally. The standards-writing movement began in most states in 1989, soon after the federal government began to stimulate the development of voluntary national standards for every major school subject, to serve as models for states and local school systems. Standards were perceived as an important way to begin to solve one of the most daunting problems that this country faces, the low level of academic achievement of its young people.

Main body

Following Reeves (2002), standards are defined as conceptual or factual criteria representing knowledge, skills, or attitudes that are established by an authority. Standards provide all parents, teachers, and students in a state with clear expectations of what all students should learn. They also contribute to coherent educational practices when teachers align their instructional methods and materials with assessments based on these standards.

Further, they establish relevant guidelines for teacher preparation, professional development, and certification. Finally, and perhaps most important, standards that reflect high expectations for all students in a state contribute strongly to the goal of equity (Anderson & Saavedra 2002).

Standards are generic in that a standard is a standard; however, even in a cursory study of educational standards, it soon becomes apparent that there are many types of standards. Standards are the basis for the validation of an individual’s degree of competence in the performance of a specific activity or in a specific field or occupation. Successful performance of the standards assures us of or validates the individual’s ability to provide the expert performance of the standards on some level (Berry, 2001).

The main reason for standard-based education was a need to create a unified system of standards introduced in all schools around the country. The aim of the reform was to establish high academic standards for schools, develop tests and accountability systems (Bracey, 2000). Often termed a “constructivist” approach to learning, it may base what is to be studied more on the student’s interests than on a curriculum planned by the teacher; it favors ‘interdisciplinary’ (or holistic) approaches to learning in order to make connections across subject areas and, in effect, reduces the amount of disciplinary content (Cizek, 2001).

Proponents of standard-based education (Cizek, 2001; Chall, 2000) argue that these are important because in their lives students seldom encounter situations in which one type of subject matter is isolated from the others. They believe that the problems and situations that individuals encounter require an interrelated command of the knowledge and skills of many subjects that mediate and inform each other. Therefore, properly prepare students to deal with situations by utilizing knowledge and skills from different disciplines in a holistic manner is the essence of authentic and relevant education (Chall, 2000).

They further believe that because students live in an increasingly pluralistic society, included within the knowledge base that they learn would be the formal knowledge of the disciplines and the indigenous knowledge of the subcultures and groups that comprise our pluralistic society.

Critical thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, would be included in the standards. The standards would require the students to utilize these skills to interrogate the knowledge that they acquire, the consequences of acting on that knowledge, and the historical foundations of that knowledge. Since power arrangements permeate our democratic society, the standards would require students to use their critical thinking skills in a critical investigation of these power arrangements and of the consequences of the use of power in relation to the issues of social justice, an ethic of caring, and democratic participation (Chall, 2000).

In student-centered education, because the learning of the knowledge and skills that are a part of student-centered standards closely approximates real-life experiences, the assessment of these standards would be multiple and authentic. Because of their focus on only certain aspects of a knowledge base or specific skills, single assessment instruments are believed to have great difficulty in capturing the holistic nature of real-life experiences (Eisner, 1995). Therefore, proponents argue that multiple assessments of various kinds must be utilized to evaluate all of the aspects of the learning experience. Because the student is the focus of the assessment, the multiple assessments would be both formative (diagnostic) and summative (evaluative) in nature (Cizek, 2001).

The idea of standard-based education implies that there are educational standards that are consistently used by all schools or universities in America. These could be mandated or voluntary, but in either case, the use of national standards implies a unified presentation of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in all educational institutions on a given level of matriculation, such as K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels (Symcox, 2002).

Of course, national standards would only apply to public schools. Private schools, to some degree, may be affected by the public school standards, but their participation would be voluntary (Watson & Tharp 1997).

The move to standard-based education is successful because it allows schools and universities to create a unified system of standards and ensure high standards of education are provided for all students in spite of their geographical location or class. For instance, schools that use a technical standards system have different degrees of instructional flexibility depending upon whether the summative assessment is a high-stakes exit-level standardized test, a grade-point average based on a compilation of teacher constructed tests, or multiple assessments that may include some type of testing, portfolios, and projects (Symcox, 2002).

Student-centered standards will accommodate the diverse needs of students and consequently provide them with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will enable them to lead socially rich and productive lives within a rapidly changing information society.

These standards would include a basic knowledge base in all subjects that would be posed in an interdisciplinary context that recognizes the interconnectedness of knowledge and the fact that knowledge changes at a rapid pace (Reeves, 2002). School districts, colleges, and universities on all levels can voluntarily agree to comply with accrediting agencies. This compliance requires the educational institution to agree to the standards created by the professional organization. Also, the scholarly community of the universities attempts to influence education on a national level (Ohanian, 1999).

According to Watson & Tharp (1997) grade recovery leads to mastery and allows students to improve their skills and knowledge. This process can be explained by psychological mechanisms of learning and practicing. Grade-level standards are established for specific grades and act as indicators of student mastery of the performance standards for a specific grade. Due to NCLB pressure and their own choosing, states are establishing grade-level standards that are used in a high-stakes context to determine whether a student is allowed to pass to the next grade level (Ohanian, 1999).

Thus, all students have different psychological characteristics and features, so some of them need more time to master a skill or knowledge. In this case, grade recovery leads to mastery and allows teachers to assess and evaluate skills and knowledge objectively. For some students, grade recovery represents best practices in relation to knowledge and skills (Ohanian, 1999). The basic assumption behind this process is that content and performance standards need to function in relation to consensual best practices or selected global educational practices (Mezirow, 2000).

For some students, it is difficult to meet high standards at once, so grade recovery becomes the best chance for them to master the knowledge and skills required by the school. Reeves’ (2002) development of this view on standards is an excellent example of the dilemma that faces many administrators and teachers who are in a standardized testing accountability situation. In this situation, Reeves sees only two choices: either engage in an increasingly superficial coverage of the mandated curriculum or add value to the state standards through a process of prioritization. The result of this prioritization process is an identification of the standards that are more important than others.

These more important standards become the power standards. The criteria that Reeves (2002) uses to identify power standards are endurance, leverage, and readiness for the next level of instruction. Standards that endure are those skills and knowledge that remain with students long after the completion of the standardized test. Leverage refers to standards that apply to many academic disciplines. Standards that comply with the readiness for the next level of learning criteria are those that prepare a student for success in the next grade level. Reeves argues that these criteria allow the identification of the standards that are the most valuable to students and the schools.

However, Reeves does caution that the potential danger in the use of power standards is that those standards that do not become power standards may well appear as questions on the test. Grade recovery can lead to full mastery of some standards and skills. Some states establish standardized tests at specific grades, such as third, fifth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth, to measure student attainment of the performance standards (Mezirow, 2000).

These tests become high-stakes exit-level tests if the students are required to pass the test before moving to the next grade level or receiving a high school diploma. This situation creates problems for students who need more time and practice to master a skill. In this case, grade recovery allows them to demonstrate knowledge and be objectively assessed by a teacher. Many individuals suggest that the stated goal of all educators regardless of their position on standards and accountability is to facilitate the development of students as life-long learners (Mezirow, 2000). To achieve this goal requires motivating students to develop a lifelong love of learning.

Obviously, a significant factor in student motivation is students’ emotional response to school and learning. Numerous studies and our own personal experience with standardized testing suggest that the outcome of this type of assessment is usually, at best, heightened anxiety and, at worst, feelings that range from shame and guilt to low levels of self-worth and self-esteem. Many individuals can attest to the test anxiety that surrounded college entrance standardized tests and the impact of their test performance on their personal identity (Meier, 2000).

Homework and mastery of standards are effective because they allow students, parents, and teachers to assess the critical thinking skills and ability of a student to master knowledge. Many educational benefits will accrue from understanding the wide range of individual differences among learners in the way they prefer to do their homework and from encouraging children to learn at home under conditions that match their preferences as much as possible (Levin, 2001).

Although much learning occurs in school, a great deal of learning also occurs outside that environment. Homework is a kind of out-of-school learning that has not yet received the serious attention that it merits in the research literature. Learning at school and at home are similar in several ways. The student’s ability to learn does not change. The same level of intellectual ability is used to learn at home and at school.

Overall motivation to learn is probably highly similar in both settings. The teacher determines what is to be learned both at home and at school. Learning at school and at home is also different in several ways. In-school learning is affected by variables not found in the out-of-school learning situation (Levin, 2001). The quality of the teacher-learner interaction, the dynamics of the classroom group, and other characteristics of the school in which learning takes place.

Similarly, out-of-school learning at home is affected by a myriad of additional and unique factors not found in school: The characteristics of the home environment; the influence of parents, siblings, and friends; and the existence of other activities that compete for the children’s time, attention, and effort. However, the major difference between learning at school and at home is that the learner has choices not only about whether to do the homework at all but also about the circumstances and surroundings in which to do it. As is seen here, there are important individual differences between learners both in motivation to do homework in general, and in specific preferences about when, where, how, and with whom they prefer to do it (McNeil, 2000).

Following McNeil (2000), strong opinions on the topic of the efficacy of homework as a teaching strategy appear in the professional literature as well (e.g., Cooper, 1989a; Corno, 1996; Gill & Schlossman, 1996; Palardy, 1995). The views range from strong criticism of the use of homework (Jones & Ross, 1964; Reese, 1995) to claims that the proper use of homework can yield a significant increase in the level of academic achievement (Cooper, 1994; Keith, 1986; Maeroff, 1989, 1992; Paschal, Weinstein, & Walberg, 1984; Walberg, 1984) (cited McNeil 2000).

In general, students who perceived their homework achievement to be of a high standard and expressed positive attitudes toward their homework tended to prefer structured homework instructions from their teachers, as compared with students characterized by low homework achievement (McNeil 2000). This finding suggests that students with poor homework habits and negative attitudes toward homework might profit from more specific and detailed instructions on what they are required to do. Encouraging these students to acquire learning modes that were not originally part of their repertoire or preferences may help them do better in their homework and also in other learning situations (Johnson, 2003).

Homework is effective because it allows teachers and parents to monitor progress and the learning process. The parent’s role is to reinforce the school’s curriculum and instruction that is designed to ensure appropriate student test scores. Parents are strongly encouraged to monitor their children’s out-of-school studies. One instructional technique that is highly promoted is an increase in student homework.

Of course, the effectiveness of homework depends upon the available time and the ability of the parents to supervise this task. In the families situated within the higher socioeconomic levels, the nature of the family and the educational level of the parents can accommodate this extension of schoolwork into family time (Gratz, 2000). However, because of lower levels of parental education, parents and students in lower socioeconomic levels struggle to meet the time demands of homework. One attempt to overcome this difficulty is to structure homework as repetitive activities involving lower-level thinking skills, such as memorization and comprehension (Galley, 2003).

Liberal proponents of technical standards maintain that because of the diverse family socioeconomic contexts, longer school days and school years are the proper reinforcements for this reform (Bracey, 1998). Generally, the assessment of technical standards involves the use of standardized testing, with many states moving to their use as high-stakes exit-level tests. Proponents of high-stakes tests find them appealing because they can be used to monitor state and local compliance with national mandates, greatly influence state policy when scores are low as a result of reduced federal funding, influence the behavior of all educational stakeholders, influence the way the public perceives public schools, appear to be scientific, and therefore, valid measurements of student achievement, and facilitate the cost-benefit analysis of public education (Eisner, 1995).

In school settings, the teacher usually determines the conditions under which learning occurs. Because the learner’s choices are limited, a large discrepancy between preferred and actual ways of studying is understandable. At home, however, one might assume that because the learner determines to a much greater extent the conditions under which he or she learns, there will be little if any discrepancy between preferred and actual ways of at-home learning.

This reasonable assumption, however, should be investigated empirically. Following Berry (200) the preferred and actual responsibility elements were neither highly consistent nor significantly different from each other. Although some students might have wanted to be responsible for their own homework, many actually did not follow their will; however, the pattern was not consistent as indicated by the low correlation.

Pre-tests allow educators to monitor the learning process and evaluate knowledge and skills levels. Pre-tests effectively aid in measuring a student’s mastery of standards because they allow teachers to analyze critical thinking skills and prepare students for assessment (tests). In any educational system, the function of assessment is to determine how well the system’s philosophical purposes have been implemented. Ideally, the philosophical purposes are achieved through an alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, in that each of these components of the learning process is guided by the philosophy that drives the process.

The mantra of the current educational reform movement—standards, accountability, and testing—is indicative of this alignment. Educators and students are held accountable for the learning of technical standards by the results of a standardized test. An emphasis on standardized testing as an accountability measure has a long history and a pervasive presence in American education (Eisner, 1995).

The fundamental difference between different types of assessments is reflected in the multiple purposes of assessment. Pre-tests help teachers to train students by providing feedback on instructional effectiveness, measuring student ability, improving student learning, comparing students and schools, and providing an accountability mechanism to determine educator effectiveness. Due to the differences among these purposes, it is difficult for one assessment instrument to capture this diversity of purpose. In fact, if the purpose is to measure the achievement of the standards, a single test only provides a snapshot of selected portions of the complete standards (Horn, 2002).

Also, some groups such as the National Forum on Assessment argue that all assessments regardless of purpose must be fair to all students, strengthened by professional collaboration and development, developed and monitored with broad community involvement, supported by systematic and clear communication, and regularly reviewed and improved. However, the strongest component of the current standards reform movement is accountability as determined by the results of standardized testing.

The idea has been extensively promoted that test scores can measure the quality of education. An implied assumption that provides a foundation for this idea is that educational quality is determined by the degree to which individuals fulfill their personal responsibility as teachers and learners in the mastery of the standards as determined by their performance on a standardized test.

This assumption minimizes or denies that collective decisions and social conditions play a part in the determination of educational quality. In educational systems that are test-focused, accountability for teaching and learning is individual, not social. Many opponents of the use of single assessments argue that this individualistic focus is a smokescreen that hides the real causes of low educational quality, which are significantly more difficult to resolve. Causes such as low and inequitable funding of schools, racist policies, and the control of public education by special interests require complex, expensive, and politically unpopular solutions.

Therefore, low educational quality is proposed as a systemwide condition caused by a lack of individual accountability that can be quickly, easily, and cheaply corrected through the construction of technical standards assessed by a high-stakes standardized test (Horn, 2002).

If student achievement is measured by teacher tests or multiple assessments, teachers have a greater degree of flexibility in their instructional methods. If an exit-level test is used, then there is pressure to utilize instructional methods that have the greatest potential for achieving the mandated level of test scores (Johnson, 2003).

If test scores are disaggregated to reflect different demographic groups within the student population, the pressure to use repetitious remedial instructional methods for students at risk of failing the test increases. Many individuals suggest that the stated goal of all educators regardless of their position on standards and accountability is to facilitate the development of students as life-long learners. Achieve this goal requires motivating students to develop a lifelong love of learning (Horn, 2002).

Obviously, a significant factor in student motivation is students’ emotional response to school and learning. Numerous studies and our own personal experience with standardized testing suggest that the outcome of this type of assessment is usually, at best, heightened anxiety and, at worst, feelings that range from shame and guilt to low levels of self-worth and self-esteem. Many individuals can attest to the test anxiety that surrounded college entrance standardized tests and the impact of their test performance on their personal identity (Horn, 2002).


In sum, standards represent very different educational philosophies and purposes. As discussed, technical standards are philosophically grounded in the realism of modern thinking. Knowledge is organized into separate disciplines that are incrementally taught in a linear sequence and, in most cases, objectively assessed by a standardized test. Standards should be primarily focused on the individual who is expected to have the will to achieve.

Higher education also utilizes a form of the concept of the grade-level standard if students are required to show proficiency in the mastering of performance standards before entering an area of certification or before receiving a professional certification. The more standards are specifically stated, the more they promote a uniform understanding of reality. This uniform understanding of education is further strengthened by standardized instruction and assessment.

In contrast, the more standards are posed as concepts, the more they allow for a diversity of opinions about the nature of reality. The diversity of opinion that is promoted through conceptual standards is enhanced by best-practice-based instruction that is assessed in multiple and authentic ways.


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