Standards-Based Education: What’s It Look Like in the Classroom?

I am often asked to describe what standards-based education looks like in the classroom.  What follows are two scenarios–a traditional classroom and a standards-based classroom–developed in an effort to address that question.

A Tale of Two Classrooms

Ms. Smith, a social studies teacher at a high school in the Midwest, teaches a three-week unit on Business Forms and The Global Economy in her semester-long economics class.  During the course of the unit she conducts several short informative lectures/question-answer sessions (on which she asks students to take notes), shows a recorded National Geographic special on outsourcing jobs, assigns textbook and periodical readings as homework, sprinkles in a few quizzes (primarily reading checks designed to hold students accountable for doing their homework), and then at the end of the unit gives a final examination. 

Ms. Smith has identified 26 related but in some cases distinct facts, laws, and principles she feels it is important for students to know in this unit.  She has to keep moving so that she can cover all 26 content items in the 14 instructional days allotted to this unit, approximately two facts, laws, or principles each class period.  Students’ final grades for this unit will consist of an average of their performance on all items.  For students the focus is on completing assigned activities and assessments and accumulating as many points as necessary to get the grade they want.  Some students are shooting for an “A” (92.5 percent), while others will be perfectly satisfied with a low “D.”

After grading the final examination Ms. Smith is both surprised and frustrated by the results.  In spite of “busting her butt” to prepare what she considers to be effective instructional activities for her students and offers to provide additional help outside of class time, more than a third of the class received “Ds” and “Fs.”

 Mr. Jones, who teaches the same unit, starts off his unit by sharing the two unit goals and their corresponding rubrics with his students and conducting a think-pair-share activity to make sure students have an initial understanding of the goals and the performance described at each level of each rubric.  He also devotes a small amount of time to engaging students in a discussion regarding why these goals are important.  Mr. Jones follows this discussion with a short pre-assessment to find out what students already know about the important facts, laws, and principles that form the content of this unit on Business Forms and The Global Economy.

Mr. Jones also does some lecturing, engages his students in several in-depth activities, assigns homework, and gives quizzes, targeting the Level 4 (Proficient) description in each rubric.  In each case special attention is made to insure students understand the connection between the activity or assessment and the pertinent learning goal and rubric.  Nothing is assigned or done that is not tied directly to one of the learning goals, or a component of it.  In some but not all cases, students have a choice as to which of a limited number of alternative activities or assignments to complete. 

Throughout the unit Mr. Jones observes and gives students corrective feedback vis-à-vis the desired performance outlined in the two unit rubrics.  Students also peer-assess and self-assess their learning.  Frequent formative assessments mirror the final unit exam (or project, or performance, or portfolio, or demonstration, or…) Mr. Jones has developed in collaboration with his colleagues, and students are given reasonable opportunities within a reasonable timeline to redo, correct, or retake assessments.  Mr. Jones and his colleagues have also planned interventions for points along the learning progression where students typically experience difficulty.    Students are motivated to keep trying because they know that early attempts will not hurt them if they end up demonstrating high levels of learning later on in the unit.

Mr. Jones administers the final exam when he is certain students are ready and is not surprised to find that all but two students attained a final unit trend score of 3.5 and above.  Instead of recording a final grade for the unit, Mr. Jones records a final trend score for each of the two goals for each student, and those two scores are then averaged to get a final Business Forms and The Global Economy unit rubric score.  Final unit rubric scores are averaged (weighted or not) at the end of each grading period and converted to a course letter grade (A-F) using the district grading scale.

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