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Making Standards Work: How to Implement Standards-Based Assessments in the Classroom, School, and District Paperback – August 23, 2004

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About the Author

Douglas B. Reeves, Ph.D., is an innovator in the field of educational assessment and accountability systems. Dr. Reeves is the author of Accountability in Action and 101 Questions about Standards, Assessment, and Accountability; he is also the president of the Center for Performance Assessment and the International Center for Educational Accountability (a non-profit organization). He consults with school systems, universities, and other organizations. Beyond his work in assessment and research, Dr. Reeves has helped school districts throughout the world transform their approaches to standards, assessment, and accountability.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One,Tying the Bell on the Cat The implementation of standards brings to mind this classic fairy tale: Once upon a time a council of mice gathered to consider how to deal with their deadly enemy, the cat. After much deliberation, the council decided that the best thing to do would be to tie a bell around the neck of the cat so that the mice would be warned whenever the cat approached. Amidst their general back slapping and self-congratulation, a small young voice uttered the telling question, "But who will tie the bell on the cat?"

This book is about "tying the bell on the cat." The national standards movement now faces a similar dilemma. There appears to be general agreement across the political spectrum that academic standards should: be rigorous and challenging; be related to the technological forces that will mold the twenty-first century in which today's students will work; and provide a fair and equitable basis for evaluation. However, there is widespread and deep disagreement about how schools will be held accountable for the implementation of these standards. Without accountability and without comprehensive and meaningful assessments, the standards movement contains little more than platitudes. While high expectations are certainly an important part of successful academic achievement strategies, expectations alone are insufficient. Assessment and accountability drive every other element of the education delivery system, including instructional design, classroom technique, allocation of resources, administrative practice, and central office decision making.

Linking Standards to Assessments-An International Challenge

This issue crosses national boundaries. In August of 1997, I addressed a policy roundtable at the International Conference on Technology and Education in Oslo, Norway. Representatives of 57 countries heard speeches from leaders including a Prime Minister, several cabinet-level education officials, and a large number of leaders from universities and school systems. They appeared to be united on the necessity for high standards and placed particular emphasis on the need for technology literacy, student collaboration, and "higher order thinking skills." The most frequent comment from the delegates of the many nations was, "The same speech could have been delivered by educational leaders in our country." I then asked the group a simple question: if there is such unanimity on the need for high standards in thinking skills, collaborative work, and technology literacy, can any of the 57 nations here claim to have an assessment system that reflects these philosophies? In fact, can any nation claim to have an assessment system that doesn't reflect the opposite of what we claim to believe? One American community college dean said that they required technology performance assessment. A few delegates said that they were experimenting with individual proficiency tests at the university level.

These noble efforts notwithstanding, the state of assessment is now little different than it has been for decades. School leaders and national policy makers talk about laudatory goals, and then continue to use tests that discourage (or more likely, prohibit) teamwork, cooperation and collaboration. The most frequently used tests encourage memorization of narrowly defined fact patterns or vocabulary words, and rarely require students to explain or justify their answers, analyze and synthesize information, or apply general principles to new and unfamiliar information. These are the skills required in the never-never land of political speeches, but rarely assessed in the classroom.

The Central Issue: How To Make Standards Work

Despite this discouraging reality, the voices demanding change are gaining national and international attention. As far as voters and most board of education members are concerned, the issue is not whether to create effective accountability and assessment, but how to do it. There are a few hold-outs remaining who regard accountability and assessment as inherently improper, unfair, demeaning, and even unprofessional, but these voices are rarely taken seriously in most debates over educational policy. The new voices in the debate demand accountability and assessment systems that are based on high academic standards and that reflect the consensus of their communities about what students should know and be able to do. These voices lack the patience to debate endlessly whether we should have effective assessment-they demand to know how to implement effective assessment. It is to these energetic, innovative and-yes-frustrated voices that this book is addressed. Their central question is: now that we have standards, how do we make them work?

What Makes the Standards Approach Different From Business As Usual?

Many school systems across the United States and abroad have endured the arduous process of establishing academic standards. This has been no easy task, particularly in the politically charged areas of social studies, economics, and literature. As difficult as these tasks have been, however, even more difficulty lies ahead when transforming standards into assessments. If standards are to be successfully implemented, then many of the traditional ways of doing things must cease.

Examples of traditional activities that can no longer take place under a standards-driven environment include the following:

Attendance (or "seat time") is sufficient to gain credit.

This issue frequently leads to a debate over "social promotion" versus "high standards," with the implication that high standards invariably lead to flunking students. In fact, high standards are founded on the core belief that all students can perform at high levels given the opportunity to learn, and with appropriate teaching and assessment strategies. Therefore, the practical impact of the application of high standards is neither high failure rates nor social promotion-it is rather the use of multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate proficiency, and the steadfast refusal of teachers and administrators to label a student as "proficient" when they are not.

A "D" is a passing grade.

I know of no classroom in America in which a "D" represents anything other than the failure of the student to demonstrate proficiency and the failure of the teacher to acknowledge it. The availability of a "D" is simply the policy option that allows a school to explicitly acknowledge that a student failed to demonstrate proficiency in the subject, while refusing to require the student to do so. In a genuinely standards-based school system, the grade of "D" should not exist. Either students are proficient (usually a grade of at least an "A" or "B" and, sometimes, a "C") or they are not. The failure to be proficient should, in most circumstances, result in a grade of "incomplete" while the student is afforded more opportunities to learn and demonstrate proficiency. Should the student refuse to do so, a failing grade, not a "D," is the only accurate grade.

A great high school is measured by the quantity and creativity of its elective offerings.

There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the proliferation of non-academic electives have improved student learning. But there is a growing quantity of statistical and narrative evidence that an emphasis on core academic disciplines promotes student learning, not only in traditional test scores, but also in complex performance assessments. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of high schools that have academic standards for statistics and economics, but offer no classes in these subjects, while the same schools devote time and resources to classes for which the community has no academic standards. Note well: this does not make a brief for a curriculum based only on the "three R's" but rather insists that every class, regardless of its label, owes a duty to the student and community to reinforce academic standards in math, language arts, social studies, and science. Classes in music, cooking, wood shop, and physical education offer extraordinary opportunities to teach math, science, history, and language arts. We cannot squander the talents and time of these teachers, nor can we afford the inconsistent message that such subjects are "soft" because they are not really academic. The defensiveness of teachers (and more commonly, some professional associations) on the subject of academic emphasis in elective subjects is misplaced.

Academic core curriculum classes are identical in structure and length for every student.

The common practice requiring that every ninth grade student should take the identical math class (typical algebra) is absurd. In a diverse district (that is, any district without a small and neatly identical group of students), some students come to the ninth grade ready for trigonometry while others require basic mathematical skills in order to avoid a catastrophic failure. Some students are ready for the challenges of literary criticism and advanced composition, while others need work on the fundamentals of spelling and grammar. A standards-based approach to education begins with the premise that all students can learn and achieve at high levels-but that does not imply that and learn in the same way and at the same pace. Standards-based districts expect that all students will achieve-that does not mean that they should expect that all students will learn in the identical manner and at the same pace. The practical impact of standards implementation is more than a series of community meetings in which everyone exclaims how nice it would be if all students learned math, English, history, and technology. This will remain the stuff of Rotary Club lunch speeches unless it is transformed into specific curriculum reforms.

It is likely that many school districts that began establishing standards would never have completed the journey had they realized that the elimination of these notions are the practical outcome of standards implementation. A standards-driven district, however, cannot afford the luxury of paying lip service to academic standards by implementing a system based only upon attendance (or "seat time"), hourly credit, and ancient definitions of satisfactory. Let us consider each of these implications in some detail.

It's Proficiency-Not Seat Time-That Matters

Standards implementation depends on a demonstration of proficiency. Traditional means of assessment, such as a letter grade associated with "seat time," are hardly ever an indication that a student has met standards. Indeed, most teachers would agree that students to whom they have given a "D" grade do not meet the standards for that class, and the teacher would have regarded the "D" as an unsatisfactory grade. Nevertheless, for the purposes of awarding the ultimate credit-a high school diploma-the "D" is regarded as satisfactory.

If standards mean anything, they mean that students must demonstrate proficiency in order to obtain credit for classes and, ultimately, in order to obtain a high school diploma from that school system. This means that the era of credit for attendance and class participation is over. Students gain credit through a demonstration of proficiency. This can be done either at the beginning of the class, in the middle of the class, or at the end of class. For students who demonstrate proficiency early, the classroom teacher has the responsibility of providing enrichment opportunities that allow those students to indicate that they have exceeded standards. For students who have difficulty achieving standards, the teacher has the obligation to provide multiple opportunities for those students to make progress towards standards and, ultimately, to meet the standards. For students who, at the end of the term, fail to meet standards, the teacher has an obligation to forthrightly indicate that the student does not meet standards, and hence was awarded no credit for the achievement of that standard. Along with this obligation to tell the uncomfortable truth, teachers have the obligation to continue to help the student work toward the achievement of that standard.

Standards Lead to Curriculum Reform

Standards implementation inevitably leads to curriculum reform, including the provision of intensive assistance for small groups of students who are not initially meeting standards. Another essential element of curriculum reform is the systematic use of standards in the description of courses. At the very least, this means that every class (particularly in a middle school, junior high, or high school) is listed in a course catalog and is associated with one or more standards established by the district. Some districts, for example, have standards in statistics, but no classes in it. On the other hand, they have classes in psychology, sociology, and photography, but no standards are associated with those classes.

If standards are to become more than a slogan, then one of two things must happen. Either the classes that are not associated with standards are no longer taught, or-a better alternative-the teachers of those classes creatively identify ways their classes can help students achieve academic standards. For example, statistics standards can clearly be met in a number of sociology, ethnic studies, psychology, and social studies classes. The same is true of many language arts and civics standards. The photography class could be linked to standards in mathematics, language arts, and civics. The bottom line remains, however, that classes not linked to standards do not make a contribution to the goals of the district and should not be taught.

Standards implementation requires a compartmentalized curriculum. By compartmentalization, I mean the reduction of some academic subjects into smaller blocks. There should be no such thing as "ninth grade mathematics" or "tenth grade English." Rather, standards that these classes have traditionally comprised should be taught in units ranging in size from a few weeks to a full semester. It might be possible that some students would take two classes to complete all those requirements-the time traditionally used for a full class. Other students, however, may need four, five, or even six units to achieve the same level of standards.

This is most evident in mathematics classes. The notion that every ninth and tenth grader should take the same algebra class is simply preposterous. A number of students enter high school without knowing multiplication tables, not to mention having any preparation for algebra class. The traditional system requires that these students take a class for which they are hopelessly ill-prepared and then brands those students as failures in mathematics. A better approach is to permit these students to achieve high school mathematics standards through a number of different classes, including not only traditional academic classes, but also application classes, vocational classes, and interdisciplinary classes. Those students still have to achieve the algebra standard but they do so by taking a variety of classes-not by taking a "dumbed-down" curriculum.

The goal of a standards-based curriculum is not to tell students how to achieve standards, but rather to provide a broad menu of alternatives that meet the needs of students who require additional instruction, as well as those who have already achieved the standard and appreciate further enrichment. The practical effect of this system is that students who need to spend more class time to accomplish the graduation standards will take fewer electives. Does this mean that a student who needs extra math and English classes in order to achieve high school graduation might not have time in his or her curriculum for band and drama? That is precisely what it means. This leads to the next issue. Standards implementation almost invariably implies fewer electives.

What About "Non-Academic" Electives?

One of the many ill-considered trends in secondary school education in the last twenty years has been the proliferation of non-academic electives. Although many of these classes have earned high marks for innovation and creativity, they have done little to contribute to the academic achievement of students. Even in districts that claim to be standards-based, many of these electives continue to thrive in ignorant bliss of any responsibility the teachers of these electives should have with regard to standards implementation. Although I acknowledge the social importance of many electives, these are times of limited resources and falling academic achievement in many districts. Such times call for making choices with regard to available time and resources. Although it may not be necessary to eliminate electives in instrumental music, chorus, journalism, drama, social sciences, and creative writing (just to name a few), it is essential that these electives be available only to students who have already achieved the standards appropriate for their grade level, or that those classes are directly used to help all students achieve academic standards. In addition, the teachers of these elective subjects bear a responsibility for either demonstrating that their classes can, in fact, help students achieve specific academic standards, or accepting the fact that the activities in which they are engaged are more appropriate as after-school extracurricular activities. To be sure, there are a number of teachers of music, shop, home economics, and many other electives who can be splendid mathematics and English teachers if only given the chance to use these subjects, which they so creatively teach, to help students achieve academic standards.

There is substantial controversy on the subject of whether "non-academic" subjects should have their own standards. This position is advocated by many professional groups associated with music, physical education, and vocational education. They argue separate standards makes these subjects part of the standards movement. In my view, such a movement is precisely wrong. It distances these subjects from core academic subjects and may doom them to irrelevance. A better approach is to integrate these traditionally "non-academic" subjects with academic standards. For example, woodworking and cooking become ways to teach math and science. Music and art become ways to teach history and literature. This integration will elevate the status of music, art, woodworking, home economics, and subjects that are too frequently placed on the chopping block during budget difficulties. In sum, the importance of these subjects is best recognized, not by their isolation, but by their integration into the core academic content standards of our schools.

Standards and High School Graduation Requirements

Standards implementation implies different graduation requirements. The myth of the "gentleman's C" (or given today's grade inflation, the "gentleman's A-") holds that mere attendance without an excess of disruptive behavior qualifies a student for a passing grade in a class. If standards are to have meaning, then a demonstration of proficiency must be linked to the awarding of high school diplomas. Many progressive districts are moving toward a certificate of completion for students who have been able to pass the attendance requirements for graduation but were unable to demonstrate proficiency in academic standards after the normal number of high school years. Typically, these students are offered a fifth year of instruction, at no charge, either in the secondary school setting or in an appropriate post-secondary institution.

Standards Call for Courage

For most, "tying the bell on the cat" requires courage, just as it did for the council of mice. Districts that seek to undertake standards must be prepared to face the political firestorm that accompanies a restriction on student choices and a diminution of the widespread emphasis on non-academic elective subjects. Moreover, criticism will inevitably come from those who believe the application of curriculum blocks is too close to "tracking." As a result, they will brand the implementation of standards as unfair, sexist, racist, and other appellations that say more about the level of educational and political discourse than they do about the targets of the labels.

Finally, criticism will come from teachers, themselves, who appreciate performance-based assessments of standards in theory, but who are less than enthusiastic when they discover that the primary responsibility for the creation and year-round administration of these assessments rests with the classroom teacher. Only those districts willing to risk the wrath of all of these criticisms, and many more, are going to be able to successfully implement standards. The result will certainly be worth it in academic achievement, fairness, equity, educational opportunity, professional development for teachers, public accountability, and in many other ways. But only the most innovative and courageous districts will endure the pain and discomfort of these criticisms in order to achieve those long-term results. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Advanced Learning Press; 3rd Edition edition (August 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0970945507
  • ISBN-13: 978-0970945501
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 0.7 x 11.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,048,712 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Douglas B. Reeves, PhD, is author of 30 books and many articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness. Dr. Reeves has twice been named to the Harvard University Distinguished Authors Series. He was named the Brock International Laureate for his contributions to education and also received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Parents Choice Award for his writing for children and parents. He is the 2010 recipient of the National Staff Development Council's Contribution to the Field Award.

Dr. Reeves work can be further explored at

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1 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Got Rice? on February 13, 2008
Format: Paperback
This is an interesting book in that it challenges all your previous ideas. I cannot say I fully agree with Reeves, but it has made me more aware of assessments and how I use them.
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1 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Mark A. Shearer on June 27, 2009
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I hated what the guy was saying in this book but Amazon's service was great!
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