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March 1999 | Volume 56 | Number 6
Using Standards and Assessments
Mike Schmoker and Robert J. Marzano
To avoid curricular chaos, educators must be judicious about the standards they assess.
The standards movement is arguably a major force in education today, and some researchers assert that the significance of the standards campaign will be huge. Undoubtedly, historians will identify the last decade of this century as the time when a concentrated press for national education standards emerged (Glaser & Linn, 1993, p. xiii).
But will the standards movement endure? And if it does, will it contribute significantly to higher achievement? We believe it will—but only if we rein in its most excessive tendencies. Those tendencies can be seen in the nature and length of state and professional standards documents—and in their unintended consequences.
Make no mistake: The success of any organization is contingent upon clear, commonly defined goals. A well-articulated focus unleashes individual and collective energy. And a common focus clarifies understanding, accelerates communication, and promotes persistence and collective purpose (Rosenholtz, 1991). This is the stuff of improvement.
The promise of standards can be seen in places like
How did they get these results? Interestingly, not by focusing on standards contained in state or professional documents. Their efforts preceded those documents. Nonetheless, in each case, teachers knew exactly what students needed to learn, what to teach to, where to improve, and what to work on with colleagues. Clear, common learning standards—manageable in number—promote better results. They are essential to focus and to coherence.
If this is true, then educators face two important questions: (1) Do we already have sufficiently clear standards? and (2) Are state and professional standards documents truly helping us achieve the focus and the coherence that are vital to success? In too many cases, the answer to both questions is no.
Curiously, standards in most districts are often similar. We have curriculums, scope, and sequence for each grade level, course, and subject area. But the perception of a common, coherent program of teaching and learning is a delusion. One of us once sat with a curriculum coordinator, poring through a dense curriculum notebook of the district's grade-by-grade "learner outcomes." The document was years in the making. Nonetheless, when the coordinator was asked what influence the curriculum was having on instruction, she was candid enough to reply "probably none." Consultant and author Heidi Hayes Jacobs likes to say that curriculum guides are "well-intended fictions." Her conclusion is that the current system actually encourages teachers to simply teach what they like to teach.
It is time to admit that at the ground level, where teachers teach and students learn, there is not coherence, but chaos. The chief problem is that there is simply too much to teach—arguably two to three times too much (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1996)—and too many options for what can be taught (Rosenholtz, 1991). There are enormous differences in what teachers teach in the same subject at the same grade level in the same school. Even when common, highly structured textbooks are used as the basis for a curriculum, teachers make independent and idiosyncratic decisions regarding what should be emphasized, what should be added, and what should be deleted (see, for example, Doyle, 1992). Such practices create huge holes in the continuum of content to which students are exposed. In The Learning Gap, researchers Stevenson and Stigler (1992, p. 140) observe that teachers are "daunted by the length of most textbooks." In a system that does little or nothing to help them coordinate priorities, they are forced to select or to omit different topics haphazardly. This only adds to the prevailing chaos.
The implications of this chaos go to the heart of school improvement. Researcher Susan Rosenholtz found that
The hallmark of any successful organization is a shared sense among its members about what they are trying to accomplish. Agreed-upon goals and ways to attain them enhance the organization's capacity for rational planning and action. (1991, p. 13; our emphasis)
This state of chaos was the rationale for the standards movement—and the most visible and influential manifestations are the state and professional standards documents. Yet these documents themselves have contributed to the very problems they were intended to solve.
"Less is more" we keep telling ourselves. Students learn more when we teach less—but teach it well (Dempster, 1993). Nowhere is this principle more obviously violated than in the standards documents. The official documents generated by 49 states and the professional subject-area organizations have had unintended consequences. Commentator Ronald Wolk has found some of them not only to be written in language that is "absurd" but also to contain such quantity that it would take a 10-hour teaching day to cover the material in them (1998).
Because it is easier to add and enlarge than to reduce and refine, we are caught in the snare of having honored (perhaps for political reasons) far too many suggestions for inclusion in the standards documents. We have often failed to place hard but practical limits on the number and the nature of the standards. The result? Bloated and poorly written standards that almost no one can realistically teach to or ever hope to adequately assess. We are making the same mistakes with these documents that we made with our district curriculums.
In the case of standards, quantity is not quality. The irony of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shouts at us: Although U.S. mathematics textbooks attempt to address 175 percent more topics than do German textbooks and 350 percent more topics than do Japanese textbooks, both German and Japanese students significantly outperform U.S. students in mathematics. Similarly, although U.S. science textbooks attempt to cover 930 percent more topics than do German textbooks and 433 percent more topics than do Japanese textbooks, both German and Japanese students significantly outperform U.S. students in science achievement as well (Schmidt, McKnight, & Raizen, 1996).
Clearly, U.S. schools would benefit from decreasing the amount of content they try to cover. And teacher morale and self-efficacy improve when we confidently lay out a more manageable number of essential topics to be taught and assessed in greater depth.
Too many of the state standards documents, informed as they are by the professional subject-area standards, have frustrated rather than helped our attempt to provide common focus and clarity for teachers and students. The good news is this: Clear, intelligible standards are a pillar of higher achievement. Aligned with appropriate assessments, they can help us realize the dream of learning for all. They are the heart of the infrastructure for school improvement (Rosenholtz, 1991; Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991).
Consider a school where teachers know exactly what essential skills and knowledge students should learn that year and where they know that their colleagues are teaching to the same manageable standards. Because of this, their fellow teachers can collaborate with them on lessons and units.
This in turn leads to a living bank of proven, standards-referenced instructional materials—lessons, units, and assessments perfected through action research. Both new and veteran teachers can peruse these targeted materials, learning from and adding to the richness of the faculty's repertoire. Because of these rich resources, new and struggling teachers achieve confidence and competence much more rapidly, and experienced teachers have a sense of making a meaningful, ongoing contribution to their craft while being renewed by instructional ideas that are engaging for students. Proven methods, practices, and lessons aligned with established standards become the center of the professional dialogue. Results on local, state, and formative assessments get better and better. Such an alignment leads inevitably to better short- and long-term results on local and state assessments as well as on norm-referenced, alternative, and criterion-referenced assessments.
To create this infrastructure in schools, we can take a few concrete steps:
Standards—when we get them right—will give us the results we want. But this will require hard-headed, disciplined effort. The lesson of TIMSS should considerably diminish the perceived risk of downsizing the curriculum. The very nature of organizations argues that we succeed when all parties are rowing in the same direction. We will realize the promise of school reform when we establish standards and expectations for reaching them that are clear, not confusing; essential, not exhaustive. The result will be a new coherence and a shared focus that could be the most propitious step we can take toward educating all students well.
Curriculum-based reform, which aligns curriculum with content and performance standards, is sweeping education systems. But what makes curriculum-based reform effective? The Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) is heading a series of studies to survey the implementation of this reform approach and its impact on student achievement.
McREL researchers have identified four state-level components for successful curriculum-based reform: an ongoing standards review, a professional development plan, an assessment program, and an accountability system. Although 80 percent of states reported that they impose sanctions when school or district assessment results are low, only 55 percent of states reported that assessment is tightly aligned to standards. And more than 45 states require that all students meet standards and participate in standards-based assessment projects.
The reports "Curriculum Reform: What State Officials Say Works" and "Taking Stock of States' Curriculum-Based Reform Efforts" are available from McREL, Curriculum, Learning and Instruction Project, 2550 South Parker Rd., Ste. 500, Aurora, CO 80014-1678 (Web site: www.mcrel.org).
Dempster, F. N. (1993). Exposing our students to less should help them learn. Phi Delta Kappan, 74(6), 432–437.
Doyle, W. (1992). Curriculum and pedagogy. In P. W. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of research in curriculum (pp. 486–516). New York: Macmillan.
Fullan, M., & Hargreaves, A. (1996). What's worth fighting for in your school? New York: Teachers College Press.
Fullan, M., & Stiegelbauer, S. (1991). The new meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Glaser, R., & Linn, R. (1993). Foreword. In L. Shepard (Ed.), Setting performance standards for student achievement (pp. xiii–xiv). Stanford, CA: National Academy of Education, Stanford University.
Rosenholtz, S. J. (1991). Teacher's workplace: The social organization of schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Schmidt, W. H., McKnight, C. C., & Raizen, S. A. (1996). Splintered vision: An investigation of U.S. science and mathematics education: Executive summary. Lansing, MI: U.S. National Research Center for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, Michigan State University.
Stevenson, H. W., & Stigler, J. W. (1992). The learning gap: Why our schools are failing and what we can learn from Japanese and Chinese education. New York: Summit.
Wolk, R. (1998). Doing it right. Teacher Magazine, 10(1), 6.
Mike Schmoker (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is author of Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement (ASCD, 1996). Robert J. Marzano is coauthor of A Comprehensive Guide to Designing Standards-Based Districts, Schools, and Classrooms (ASCD/McREL, 1997) and Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K–12 Education (McREL/ASCD, 1996). Schmoker is Senior Consultant, School Improvement, and Marzano is Senior Fellow for McREL, 2550 S. Parker Rd., Ste. 500, Aurora, CO 80014-1678.
Copyright © 1999 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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