Standards-Based Education Requires Standards-Based Assessments

In the United States, a standards-based assessment is a test that evaluates a student’s mastery of standards for specific knowledge or skills. Standards-based assessments are the natural result of standards-based education, or outcome-based education, used in most state education departments. The components of standards-based education are standards-based assessment, standards-based instruction, standards-based learning, and standards-based grading.

To develop standards-based education, educators have to determine the specific standards that cover the discrete knowledge and skills that every child must master for each grade; these include all content standards. This has been true for most elementary schools for some time, but middle school and high schools are beginning to adopt standards-based education. Many see this as a result of Standards-Based Education Reform. Controversy emerged in past years as all states moved towards these higher standards that focused on college and career readiness. Today, all states have adopted some form of these new standards, although many states have masked the standards by renaming them with their own language.

While the set of skills and knowledge for each grade may vary from state to state, for the most part they are similar. School districts within a state abide by the standards as written by the state. This paradigm ensures that state educators, parents, and students know what is expected for each grade. And the similarity of standards from state to state ensures that students can easily move from state to state. The goal of standards-based education is a high school diploma and the assurance that by high school graduation, students will be prepared for success in college and career.

Standards-based assessments test the standards that must be mastered to attain proficiency in each grade. These assessments are used to measure student mastery of the standards. Many districts and schools create or purchase benchmark assessments that indicate progress toward the standards during the school year. Using standards-based tests, teachers can implement standards-based grading to evaluate student progress.

Standards-based instruction is developed to ensure that students can achieve the standards for each grade as a result of the direct and hands-on instruction and practices and projects that are assigned each year. The assumption is that if the instruction is well-designed then at the end of the year, students will be able to demonstrate mastery of all grade-level standards.

Standards-based instruction in other words should lead to standards-based learning, which is also called mastery learning. For instance, educational departments in each state might set specific goals for what students need to learn by the end of each grade: first-graders need to know certain phonics rules, be able to count to 100, recognize basic 2D shapes, etc. The goals increase in difficulty for each additional grade level.

To Find Learning Gaps, Use Diagnostic and Formative Assessments

When a standards-based assessment is given at the end of the school year, it is considered summative. These assessments are not designed to be a diagnostic assessment or a formative assessment. Why do teachers need diagnostic assessments and formative assessments? If a student does poorly on a standards-based assessment, the teacher will not be able to figure out why the student didn’t achieve mastery. For example, if a 5th-grade student is given a 5th-grade math test and scores a 20% on it, the student is not considered to be proficient for their grade level; they didn’t achieve mastery. But the teacher may ask why did the student fail? What are the next steps? Does the student need 4th-grade math concepts? Or 3rd-grade concepts? Maybe the student was new to English and couldn’t read the test very well, and therefore failed not because of limited math ability but because of difficulty reading the instructions. (See this article discussing the limitations of standards-based testing in education for more information.) Therefore, while standards-based assessments are extremely important from an accountability standpoint, relying on them exclusively and using them inappropriately can prevent an understanding of student learning gaps. You don’t use a screwdriver to pound a nail into a piece of wood; you use a hammer. Use the right assessment for the right purpose.

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