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The Nature and Limits of Standards-Based Reform and Assessment: Defending Public Schools

reviewed by Carl B. Frederick - April 22, 2009

coverTitle: The Nature and Limits of Standards-Based Reform and Assessment: Defending Public Schools
Author(s): Sandra Mathison and E. Wayne Ross, (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080774901X, Pages: 224, Year: 2008
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A considerable amount of ink has been spilled in the battle over standards, accountability, and high stakes testing. As its title implies, this edited volume is opposed to the current system of standards and accountability. It stands out from other critiques by expanding the debate beyond various implementation strategies to address questions about whether standards and accountability systems can achieve the goals of public schools. In their own words, the editors hope to provide a “holistic understanding of the nature and limits of standards-based educational reforms and, in particular, the ways in which current assessment practices influence the quotidian experiences of students, teachers, administrators, and parents in public schools,” (p. xxiv).

The first essay, written by Mathison, sets the current educational policy regime in historical context by tracing the roots of educational assessments and how they dovetail with the curriculum standards movement. The distinction she draws between the technical and political aspects of assessments is important to the argument of the book. The early adoption and expansion of standardized, machine-readable exams was driven by technological advances in both the mechanical and psychometric sense of the word. The privileged position of science in modern society has focused attention toward the objective pursuit of what we can do and away from political questions such as where we should set performance standards, what should be included in content standards, and whether the benefits of testing outweigh the costs. Based on arguments presented throughout the book, a good system of accountability would be developed locally by a representative group of school stakeholders, and test scores would be used to guide and improve instruction rather than rank students.

The first half of the book critiques standards-based educational reforms at two levels. The first level directly challenges the current implementation under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This argument explains why NCLB will fail to achieve its stated goals of raising achievement and reducing disparities between different sub-groups. The second level of analysis goes deeper and, as a result, is more compelling. It problematizes the fundamental idea that externally imposed systems of accountability are capable of facilitating real learning and other goals of schooling.

The direct challenge to standards-based educational reform dominates in the three essays by Popham, Mabry, and Mathison and Muñoz. Popham argues that the idea of standards-based education is good in theory, but destined to fail as it is currently implemented because there are too many content standards, and the tests used to measure how well teachers and students have taught and learned the myriad standards are instructionally insensitive. Mabry takes a similar approach evaluating the individual “dreams” of standards, assessments, and accountability. Her arguments concerning the unrealistic goals written into NCLB are more convincing than others, such as favoring teacher assessments because test scores are subject to measurement error. This assumes that teacher assessments are free from uncertainty as well. Finally, Mathison and Muñoz explain how the current implementation of standards-based educational reforms violates professional norms of evaluation. The collective weight of this line of reasoning leaves the reader ready to design and implement a better system.

Bracey’s critique of international comparative tests (e.g., PISA, TIMMS, and PIRLS) digresses from the central argument of the volume. Alone, it is a fair and well-reasoned critique of the conclusions that can be drawn from such studies and, especially the way that they are covered in the mass media. My only qualm is that its inclusion in this volume implicitly elides the distinction between these tests and the high-stakes tests that are the focus of the rest of the book. The harm does not come from the international tests, per se, but from sensationalized coverage of poor results coupled with the (dubious) assumption present in the dominant policy discourse that the relative performance on these tests is the primary cause of global economic competitiveness.

Kohn articulates the second, deeper level of attack on standards-based educational reform. He argues against any system of education with too much emphasis on achievement instead of learning. Drawing on evidence from educational psychology, he concludes that,

Even the most unbiased, carefully constructed, “authentic” measure of what students know is likely to be worrisome, psychologically speaking, if too big a deal is made about how students did, thus leading them (and their teachers) to think less about learning and more about test outcomes. (Emphasis added, pp. 33-34)

Kohn is careful to qualify his devastating appraisal, but following this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion raises other questions. Monitoring our students’ progress in schooling is a valid concern, especially considering the continuing disparities along gender, race-ethnic, class, and other lines. In this sense and for their future success, student performance is a big deal. How should we balance the tension between this reality and insights from educational psychology? This relates to one of the key weaknesses of the volume as a whole; it comes across as heavy-handed at times. A more consistent effort to acknowledge the elements of “good sense” embedded in the standards and accountability movement throughout the entire collection would weaken counter-arguments. More importantly, doing so would result in better potential alternative educational policy regimes by addressing these real concerns in a meaningful way (cf. Apple, 2006).

If the behaviorist, incentive-based logic embedded in the current standards-based educational reforms is fundamentally incompatible with the ultimate goals of schooling, should we scrap the former altogether?  With the arguments at both levels laid out, Jones offers up an alternative vision of what accountability should be. This new model includes measures that speak to the entire process of schooling: student learning, opportunities to learn, responsiveness to students, parents and community, and the school’s capacity for improvement. The role of state and federal agencies would shift from arbiters of punishment to clearinghouses through which information, resources, and guidance can be distributed among local districts. Direct federal or state intervention would only be used to correct failures in local accountability systems. This proposed alternative highlights the tension between the implementation and foundational critiques. Clearly, the current approach is deficient but would Kohn endorse Jones’ new plan? Jones specifically includes “press for achievement” (p. 63) in his model of authentic accountability. Unfortunately, this tension is never resolved in the volume.

The second half of the book shifts focus to highlight the lived consequences of standards and accountability systems for the various groups of school stakeholders: students, parents, teachers and school administrators, who ultimately bear the brunt of the consequences of education policies but rarely take part in crafting them. The common theme uniting the experiences of these different groups with externally mandated accountability systems is one of conflict leading to compromised ideals. Two essays examine the conflict for two particular groups of students. McLaughlin and Nagle highlight the different sources of tension between special education and standards-based educational reforms. By enforcing a uniform set of content and performance standards, NCLB marks a departure from the traditional rights-based, individualized system of special education. As a result, many teachers feel that children in special education should have their own set of standards, while parents fear that their children will become scapegoats who “cause” schools to fail. In her second essay, Mathison argues that standardized testing puts children of color and those living in poverty, who generally score lower on such tests, at a cumulative disadvantage. The extensive use of tests for high-stakes decisions tends to act as a vehicle of social reproduction rather than working to ameliorate disadvantages due to social background.

Based on interviews from groups of parents at one urban and one suburban school district, Freeman shows that standards-based education reform and the rhetoric surrounding it map quite nicely onto the consumerist values of privileged parents in the suburban school district. She argues that modes of parent involvement and parental expectations can harm public schools, because they silence the voice of parents whose involvement does not conform to consumerist values. Thus, parents and their children, whose “cultural values and social expectations conflict with the values of the institutions within which they are trying to find footing” (p. 105), are put at a further disadvantage.

The essays exploring the experiences of teachers and school administrators call attention to the way that externally mandated curriculum and assessment regimes add conflict to their jobs. For teachers, Mathison and Freeman argue that teachers are forced to choose between teaching with integrity and ensuring each child has a chance to succeed on high-stakes tests. For administrators, Firestone reports survey results that show NCLB is just one more form of accountability they must incorporate into their decision-making process. When the various concerns fail to pull in the same direction, standards and accountability systems can provide only a weak guide to local practice at best.

The volume concludes with Cala exploring why, knowing the harm they pose to students, teachers and administrators have not mounted a stronger resistance to high-stakes tests. He likens it to the subjects in Milgram’s (1974) famous study of obedience. He finishes the book with a guide and invocation to readers to resist standards-based educational reform. The volume lacks a conclusion that unifies the lines of argument presented in the individual chapters. It would also have been nice if any of the authors discussed the obstacles inherent in their proposed alternative, such as creating and maintaining a local community’s appetite for a significantly higher degree of involvement and how to resolve controversial battles in winnowing potential content standards down to their “essential” core. In the end, the essays in this volume work in concert to build a compelling case against the status quo, and the reader comes away with a sense that more local input is needed and that a basic level of psychometric literacy is necessary to ensure the proper design and use of tests and their results.


Apple, M. W. (2006). Educating the "right" way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 22, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15622, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:52:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Carl Frederick
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    CARL B. FREDERICK is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include the causes and consequences of grade retention and the impact of schools on civic participation. His recent publications include “Have We Put an End to Social Promotion? Changes in School Progress among Children Aged 6 to 17 from 1972 to 2005,” published in Demography, and co-author of “Grade Retention in the Age of Standards-Based Reform” in Standards-Based Reform and the Poverty Gap: Lessons for No Child Left Behind, edited by Adam Gamoran.
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