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Why ‘Standards-Based Learning’ Often Means Kids Learn Nothing In School And Still Pass


The innocuous label of “standards-based learning” hides a vicious idea that can effectively eliminate whatever rigor and accountability is still left 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 builds off another premise that all classes and their curriculum can be broken up into individual standards and that the purpose of a course is to help students master those standards. This all follows the skills-based approach to learning advocated by standards systems like Common Core.

This Isn’t How Real Reading Works

For instance, in a sophomore English class, students may have to master the standard of recognizing the relevance of historical background in a given text (TEKS 110.37.6D). Students “practice” this standard by doing various exercises that pick out pieces of text and short biographies of various writers then require students to answer questions about historical background.

In a final project (always a project, never an actual test, which offers fewer loopholes), the students might show “mastery” of this standard by drawing a picture of a story’s setting and writing a three-sentence description of that setting. If the student completes this task in any conceivable capacity (a stick figure and a few words), the teacher can then justifiably declare that he mastered the skill and have that grade on this final project replace all the zeroes the student received on the practices.

Everything about this is wrong. The first problem is with the theory of standards-based learning itself. Most subjects, even math, cannot be broken up in to isolated standards. Understanding context, making inferences, determining purpose, evaluating an argument, and all the rest are not really “skills” in any meaningful sense; they are all part of the reading process. Readers do all of these things at the same time, and if they can do it well, they haven’t mastered any particular skill, but are simply strong readers.

The same goes for solving a math problem, conducting a science experiment, or analyzing a theme in history. The connectedness of most academic processes points to the second problem with standards-based learning: showing ability on one activity doesn’t necessarily equate to mastery.

Even if a student correctly answers a setting question on one story, he may falter with another story. The difference lies in working through the content, not really mastering the supposed skill of “determining the setting of a narrative.” It’s 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 Lesson Planning Tedious

In terms of planning, standards-based learning often adds more to a teacher’s plate. Teachers must break their assignments into various stages and attach various standards to each stage.

No longer can an English teacher simply assign an in-class essay on a story the class read. Now, he must break up that essay into pre-writing, outlining, rough draft, peer review, and final draft assignments and label each of those with the corresponding standards. All too often, what starts as a quick and effective way to offer practice and take a grade turns into a tedious series of meaningless activities that chew up two weeks of instruction.

When standards-based learning is applied to grading, even more problems abound. All of a sudden, a student’s grade is not tied to his effort, progress, or even actual proficiency in the subject. Rather, it is usually tied to a single performance on a subjective assessment that somehow incorporates most or all the major standards of a learning unit. For failing students, it serves as a get-out-of-fail card; for the students doing well in the class, it’s one more meaningless hoop to jump through.

There Are Much Better Ways to Learn

By contrast, in a traditional class setup, students earn their grades through the work they complete periodically throughout the grading period. Those grades will include a mix of assignments that include teacher guidance (formative assessments) and those that require students to study and demonstrate their knowledge without assistance (summative assessments). The formative assessments help students prepare for summative ones—nothing replaces the other, and nothing is added for the sake of checking off a standard.

Thus, what often results from standards-based grading is a student who never did any of the work or learned any of the material, but still passes the course with flying colors. Or, the student could have done all the work, but still didn’t learn any of the material, and also passes with flying colors. Since the standardized tests meant to hold teachers and students accountable are either ridiculously easy or nonexistent, no one seems to mind that the grades have become completely irrelevant.

So why do states and school systems adopt this flawed theory? Mainly, it provides a justification for campuses needing to cut down their failure rates—which is pretty much every campus.

This was exactly what happened in San Diego Unified School District, which took steps to eliminate grading disparities between different racial groups. Officially, they changed their grading policy to be “about showing progress toward ‘mastery of standards,’ rather than rewarding students for completing a certain quantity of work.” In reality, they were just passing students who weren’t doing their work.

Skills Are Empty, Letting Teachers Fudge Content

Making courses standards-based also opens the door to changing curriculum to suit a political agenda or ease the teaching load. If English teachers hate teaching Homer, they can now justify that they will teach their standards with alternative texts.

If history teachers hate teaching their subject from a pro-Western perspective, they can use Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States” to help students learn how to “think historically.” If quadratic equations are a hard sell for the students, math teachers can downplay that particular standard and stress other parts of the textbook. If a biology teacher wants to show sensitivity to transgender students, she can cut down the lesson on reproduction and watch “Outbreak” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. instead.

As with other bogus pedagogical theories and fads (including critical race theory), standards-based grading distinguishes itself by perpetuating mediocrity in the classroom. It pretends to save time and cut right to the core of learning, when it really dispenses with the necessary work of teaching and learning. Only later does it become clear that the students learned next to nothing at school.

Just like there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as effortless learning. Any educational theory or practice that suggests otherwise is a scam. Standards-based grading is merely one example of this pervasive dynamic in U.S. education.