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If we don’t do standards right, will we have time to do them over?

By October 23, 2012June 13th, 20165 Comments

In previous blogs, I’ve noted that while standards-based reform efforts appear to have “raised the floor” on student performance, they’ve been less successful in “raising the ceiling” or unleashing the talent of our students at the upper-end of the spectrum. In fact, Harvard education professor Martin West noted that far greater percentages of students in other developed nations perform at the same levels demonstrated by the top six percent of students in the United States.

Students also appear to be detached from the system of standards-based assessments and accountability that we’ve so carefully constructed over the past two decades—as evidenced by the fact that surprising students prior to taking a standardized test with a mere $10 bribe for good performance is enough to make them do significantly better on the tests.

So what’s the answer? More bribes for students so they’ll play along with our accountability systems? While bribes may work to some extent, as I noted in a recent column in Educational Leadership, external rewards tend to have diminished results over time, requiring greater dosages (or payouts) to be effective. Moreover, the presence of external rewards can serve to undermine intrinsic motivation, which researchers have found can have a powerful influence on student success.

In the video below, education author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson notes that raising standards is fine—indeed, there’s no sensible argument to be made for lowering them. However, if we only focus on what we want students to learn and not why we want them to learn it, we may be doing them a great disserve.


Robinson speculates that it may be more than just coincidence that “incidences of ADHD have risen in parallel with the growth of standardized testing” and points out that “our children are living in the  most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth.” And yet, we penalize “them for getting distracted and from what? Boring stuff … at school.”

He points to studies that show that the longer students stay in school, the less creative they become. Similarly, other researchers have found that the longer students stay in school, the less intrinsically motivated they become.

However, standards need not come at the expense of student engagement. The Edutopia web site, for example, provides many vivid examples of learning environments, such as The Build San Francisco Institute, where standards-based learning opportunities are incredibly engaging for students, many of whom were previously at-risk for dropping out of school.

In Tulsa, a team of curriculum developers and researchers from McREL designed a pilot summer program, Cosmic Chemistry, in the Union School District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cosmic Chemistry gave teenagers, many of whom had been identified as unlikely to enroll in upper-level high school chemistry courses, an opportunity to interact with NASA scientists and experience the thrill of inquiry and discovery of true applied science. The program resulted in excited students who are now intrigued by science— so much so that 80 percent of students who participated in the course enrolled in Advanced Placement chemistry courses at their high schools.

This suggests that when we consider student motivation and help students understand what’s in standards-based learning for them, we create relevance in their learning, and it becomes possible to not only raise the floor with standards, but also the ceiling on student performance.

Sure, it takes a bit more planning, creativity, and effort. But the results—and the expression on these students’ faces—would suggest that it’s worth it.

As 46 states move to adopt Common Core State Standards, the opportunity may never be better to not only rethink the standards themselves, but how we might go about creating a standards-based system of education that truly engages student interest and motivation.

While some educators might feel weary or overwhelmed with the enormity of transitioning to new standards and say, “I agree with you. But right now we just need to take care of adopting the standards. We can worry about that other stuff later.”

However, we might do well to recall the words of the late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who famously remarked, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

What are your thoughts? Is it possible to make standards-based learning engaging for students?

Written by Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing, and New Business Development.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Erik Dutilly says:

    So many of the problems and apparent problems in education funnel back to motivation. We can change standards all day and night, raise the bar, lower it, turn it into chocolate cake, and if students don’t have buy in, then I suspect our efforts won’t be rewarded. But motivation itself is not a solution. It’s an inspiring idea. Motivating students is a very complex topic, especially if you’re looking to externally motivate. Taping student’s internal drives seems like a good approach.

  • Gregg Russell says:

    If we don’t consider engagement as a part of the overall puzzle that is student achievement then the common core movement will be minimally effective. Engagement truly is the name of the game and yet it’s something educators know little about.
    We are often assessed as a country on the NAEP, SAT, ACT, yet how many students are truly engaged too take these? Perhaps the new movements in education will direct us to more engaging assessments and instruction that will utlimately lead to more engagement of the students. If not then Rip Van Winkle will wake up in 2106 and still recognize school except this time the board will be a smart board.

  • Andrea Beesley says:

    Paying students for putting more effort into standardized tests isn’t likely to undermine intrinsic motivation, because most kids are unlikely to think of test-taking as motivational anyway. But as you noted, it is sobering to think that the high-stakes tests upon which so many decisions rest can be influenced by such a trivial reward. It is to some extent a predictable outcome when the tests are high-stakes for everyone but the students who take them–some of them figure that out!

  • Laura Pupillo says:

    Engagement is definitely the ticket here, as is motivation, but how do we get there? Purpose is essential in learning. Why do it if it doesn’t matter? We also need to consider tangible purpose. Is it purposeful for study in depth things that they we will never actually touch or experience? Place based education, coupled with project based learning, that is engaging and meaningful might be our solution. If studying water is the standard, what better way to actually study it than by touching it, exploring it, and visiting it. If we have the expectation that our students move from the abstract to the concrete in their learning, than that learning must also be concrete.

  • Spending learners for placing more attempt into consistent assessments isn’t likely to challenge innate inspiration, because most children are unlikely to think of test-taking as inspirational anyway. But as you mentioned, it is startling to think that the high-stakes assessments upon which so many choices relax can be affected by such a simple compensate. It is somewhat a foreseeable result when the assessments are high-stakes for everyone but the learners who take some of them of them determine that out!

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